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Justice Dept. mum on new photo ID to vote law

Will Tennessee join Texas and Florida on the hot seat?

Special to the Tri-State Defender

While the U.S. Justice Department announced this week that it is investigating a number of states to determine if new voting provisions comply with federal voting rights laws, it isn’t saying just yet whether Tennessee is a target.

This summer, U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen wrote federal officials in the Justice Department to ask for a review of Tennessee’s newly-strengthened photo ID to vote law, which was strongly opposed by numerous veteran civil rights and voting rights groups.

The Justice Department has not yet replied to Cohen’s letter. Staff members in his office say officials are not likely to either, as Justice typically declines to confirm ongoing investigations.

On Tuesday (Dec. 13), U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder Jr. left the matter open for interpretation as he publicly responded to the swelling chorus of voter complaints – including a few in Tennessee – by pledging to aggressively protect the rights of American voters.

“Ensuring that every veteran, every senior, every college student, and every eligible citizen has the right to vote must become our common cause,” said Holder, speaking at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library & Museum in Austin, Texas.

“And, for all Americans, protecting this right, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue – but as a moral imperative.”

Holder outlined a few specific concerns with recent legislation and voter disinformation campaigns, but declined to identify or list all the states that may be targets for Justice investigators. He did publicly cite Texas and Florida.

“Although I cannot go into detail about the ongoing review of these (Section 5 states) and other state-law changes, I can assure you that it will be thorough – and fair.   We will examine the facts, and we will apply the law,” said Holder.

“If a state passes a new voting law and meets its burden of showing that the law is not discriminatory, we will follow the law and approve the change. And where a state can’t meet this burden, we will object as part of our obligation under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said he welcomed the help from Justice Department officials.

“ Proponents of voter suppression have launched the most sophisticated, well-coordinated attack on voting rights in the modern era,” said Henderson.

“Their goal is simple – to suppress the vote of African Americans, Latinos, people with disabilities, low-income people, American Indians, Asian Americans, young people, seniors, and other constituencies that support progressive policies. The poll taxes and literacy tests of an earlier era are today embodied in state laws that require photo IDs to vote and that limit early voting, provisional voting and voter registration.”

Last summer, The New Tri-State Defender highlighted the fact that the new photo ID to vote law would pose a particular problem in Memphis, where some local residents were standing in line for two hours just to enter the motor vehicle department local offices, where state voter ID’s now are available. The wait to get an approved photo ID can be four to five hours in Shelby County, while state motor vehicle centers in other regions report wait times of 20 minutes of less.

The average wait time in the state is 55 minutes. Following the TSD reports, some changes were made – tents were erected to shelter those standing in line from the elements, bottled water was handed out, and the state pledged to start express lines for patrons seeking IDs to vote.  

The Justice Department, in its review, said it will examine – among other things – whether the new voter ID laws and restrictions pose a greater burden for minorities, who are far less likely to have a driver’s license or valid state ID. In a recent speech, Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, said that states under review bear the burden of showing that the new laws are not intentionally discriminatory and will not have a retrogressive effect.

Tennessee’s new photo ID law states the Department of Safety and Homeland security will provide a photo ID at no charge for registered voters who do not have a government-issued photo ID. However, residents still have to produce documentation such as a birth certificate and two proofs of residency (utility bills, car registration or bank statements.)

The NAACP, however, notes residents typically incur a cost in ordering copies of birth certificates. In some cases, the records simply may not be available.

“In the rural South, many people of a certain age have no birth certificate because they were born to a midwife,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP.

“For them, the barriers to getting a state issued ID without birth certificates are tremendous. Others are dependent on the rides to the polls provided by church-organized Sunday voting drives, which have been shut down in some states.”

While civil rights group applauded Holder’s remarks, their efforts to protect voter rights will continue. On Dec. 5, the NAACP released a report summarizing the effect of recent voting laws, which supporters say are needed to combat voting fraud. In the report,  “Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America,” officials argue that the new laws are designed to suppress minority turnout, which in 2008 was a factor in the election of Barack Obama, the first African American to serve as president.

“Last week was a game changer,” declared Jealous, whose organization helped to organize a voting rights rally in New York City last Saturday (Dec. 10) that attracted more than 25,000.  

“We issued our call for voting rights in the streets of New York, at the United Nations and across the nation through the media. The far right is now on the defensive about their attack on voting rights.”

In a related matter:

The NAACP is urging members to sign the petition for voting rights at Stand4Freedom.org http://www.stand4freedom.org/page/s/stand-for-freedom.

In Tennessee, a citizen-led effort is underway to repeal the photo ID for voting law. Tennessee Citizen Action, in conjunction with the No Barriers to the Ballot Box Coalition, has launched ProtectTheVoteTN.org, a new website for Tennesseans who want to help repeal the photo ID to vote law, serve voters who need assistance, and monitor the 2012 elections.

On Dr. Martin Luther King Day, the NAACP will launch an unprecedented voter registration drive and it’s first-ever voter identification drive.”

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