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Photo ID to vote law sets table for disaster

Since coming to the Senate in 2007, each year my fellow Democrats and I have opposed efforts to place barriers between voters and the polling booth.
 State Sen. Lowe Finney

by State Sen. Lowe Finney

Special to the Tri-State Defender

It is a little over a year until the 2012 elections, and you’re eligible to vote for the first time. Maybe you’ve moved to another county, or maybe you haven’t voted in a while and need to know your precinct. You call your local election office, where someone tells you that you will need a photo ID to vote. You learn that you’ll need several pieces of documentation to prove your identity in order to receive the ID. If you live in any of the 53 counties – yes, 53! – where there is no drivers license center, you’ll have to travel to a neighboring county to get the ID. Unfortunately, this will be the new norm.

Since coming to the Senate in 2007, each year my fellow Democrats and I have opposed efforts to place barriers between voters and the polling booth. Earlier this year, the Republican majority passed a law requiring photo identification to vote, despite warnings that it would hurt thousands of voters and potentially cost the state millions in federal lawsuits.

Now, news comes from Memphis that people are spending four hours waiting in the West Tennessee heat to get those IDs – and many are turned away for not having enough documentation. There are problems all over the state, with wait times reportedly highest in the state’s urban areas.

Hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans don’t have a valid ID, and many are unable to travel to get one. Seniors, those with disabilities, and military veterans, many of whom have voted for decades, are now in danger of losing their right to vote because there are no facilities in their area to produce eligible photo IDs. Students, meanwhile, were specifically targeted by an amendment that bans university ID cards, meaning students at Tennessee’s public colleges and universities cannot use the government-issued photo ID most easily available to them.

We are setting the table for disaster. Even before the bill passed, the Attorney General warned that a voter photo ID requirement would be unconstitutional and would constitute a modern-day poll tax.

But what’s even worse is the possible disenfranchisement of thousands of eligible Tennessee voters. If voters are waiting four hours for a photo ID, one can only imagine the potential chaos as we move closer to Election Day.

Proponents of the legislation often say that nothing disenfranchises a qualified voter more than an unqualified person casting a vote. Fair enough. The proponents fail to say, however, how forcing thousands of eligible voters to jump through more government hoops will stop voter fraud. Voter fraud is a serious matter, and it should be prosecuted fully. But this bill doesn’t fix that problem.

Moreover, assuming that all but a handful of voters can get the ID, barriers that affect even a small number of lawful voters should concern all of us.  Martin Luther King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Making someone who is disabled travel to a neighboring county, wait in line, and risk being turned away from a process they’ve enjoyed for years is not right. It is not just.

State lawmakers should be focused on passing legislation making it easier to vote and not placing barriers between a citizen and his or her involvement in the electoral process. We already have one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country; last year, Tennessee was 49th in the nation in eligible-voter participation, according to the United States Election Project.

One wonders why the majority has made this legislation a top priority for so long and why they go to such length to place additional burdens on Tennessee voters. One wonders if those burdens were the intent all along.

(State Senator Lowe Finney (D-Jackson) is the Senate Democratic Caucus Chair.)

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