For an election to be fair, America needs champions with the courage to act and the will to lead. Often, these are ordinary people – the folks who register new voters, regardless of their political party, and offer both Democrats and Republicans rides to the polls.
People with this mindset, increasingly, are a rare breed.
In the 2012 campaign, one champion, in particular, stood out for me. His name is AC Wharton Jr. and he happens to be the mayor of Memphis, a town linked to the civil rights movement by tragedy as well as by the throngs of citizens who risked their careers and lives to stand up for equality of opportunity.
In 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly adopted a photo ID for voting statute that put different-sized burdens on the back of different voters. Wharton, as it happened, represented the people who would carry the heavier load. Residents of Memphis, including me, were waiting hours outside the Department of Motor Vehicles – in 90 degree heat – in a quest to get a state-approved voter ID.
Now, Wharton didn't do what most of us might do: He didn't shout at the Republicans or embarrass them. Rather, he affirmed, by his action, his own belief in fairness. He pushed Memphis to come up with its own photo ID, one that could be issued through the local library. This way, no senior in Memphis would have to wait outdoors, in sweltering heat, without water or bathroom breaks, for the privilege of casting a ballot.
"It was our intent to make voting easier, not more difficult," Wharton said in a released statement. "In so doing, we knew that we were fighting this battle not just for the citizens of Memphis, but for every city and community across Tennessee where you have seniors, the disabled, and people in general in need of greater access and flexibility in obtaining a valid ID for voting."
Tennessee Republicans said a photo ID for voting law was needed to make certain voters are who they claim to be. If someone shows up with Mary Smith's voter registration card, how do we know it's really Mary Smith? Well, let's pass a law that asks Mary to show a driver's license, or gun permit, or employee ID, the Republicans said.
Wharton, who formerly headed the Memphis and Shelby County Legal Services, had concerns about this plan. It placed a special burden on the elderly and poor in his city. The DMVs in Memphis, which distribute state-sanctioned photo IDs for voting, have some of the longest lines and wait times in the state. (When I got my Tennessee driver's license at a Memphis DMV center, I stood in line for three hours, just to reach the DMV waiting room. In other more Republican areas of the state, wait times were under 15 minutes.)
So Wharton proposed a fair solution: Memphis-issued photo-ID library cards. To obtain these cards, applicants had to submit some of the same documentation requested by the state – leases, utility bills, pay stubs. But no Social security card and no birth certificate would be needed as these add to the cost of complying with the law.
Under Wharton's plan, the state still has far greater certainty that the Mary Smith who shows up to vote actually is the real Mary Smith. But if Mary lived in Memphis, she wouldn't be asked to carry a heavier burden than her fellow citizens.
You might think the state would praise Memphis and bi-partisanship for stepping up and taking on some of the fiscal responsibility for implementing this law. They did not. They did not like the idea at all. They argued that since Memphis is not an entity of the state, its photo ID could not be accepted at the polls on Nov. 6th.
Eventually Memphis, and two of its citizens, took the matter to court alleging, among other things, that Tennessee's photo ID law for voting was unconstitutional. After months of legal wrangling, and on the City's second attempt to challenge the law, the state Court of Appeals ruled that Memphis was, in fact, an entity of the state. As such, its library-issued photo ID was acceptable identification. The court also ruled the Tennessee photo ID law was constitutional, so both state officials and Memphis Officials claimed victory.
Last week, however, state election officials appealed the Appeals Court's ruling to the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, people using library-issued photo IDs to vote are being treated differently at the polls. They are getting provisional ballots, which has prompted the City of Memphis to fire back by sending a strongly-worded letter to Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper demanding that local election commissioners treat photo library cards the same as other valid IDs.
All the legal wrangling by the state raises the question as to the original intent behind the photo ID law. Wasn't the goal to have voters present a photo ID? If so, then why is it state and federal employees can use their work IDs at the polls, but Memphis city employees can't. Why aren't all employee IDs accepted at the polls, as they are in other states with photo ID laws.
Why is it faculty at state universities can use their college IDs at the polls, but students at the same schools – a vital part of the Democrats voting coalition – cannot? Why is it a gun permit card with a photo is an acceptable ID but a library card issued by the city of Memphis is not?
Every fair election requires thoughtful champions willing to stand up and speak out. Fair-minded Americans owe a debt to Memphis and its citizens. This election, while everyone was talking about voter suppression, you worked within the system to develop a way to support the Republican goal, but eliminate the unfair burdens on the poor.
Southern towns, with African-American majorities that have strong ties to the civil rights movement, have a unique intelligence to offer America. While Democrats complained about voter suppression, Mayor Wharton affirmed his belief in fairness.
That approach was powerful. It is not the size of a city that makes it great, but rather the capacity of its people to step up and take on national challenges.
NOTE: This from state election officials on Nov. 1, 2012:
“We are pleased that the Tennessee Supreme Court has chosen to hear our appeal regarding the use of Memphis city library cards to verify voters’ identities under the state’s photo identification law. We continue to believe the General Assembly clearly intended for only state- or federally-issued photo IDs to be valid for the purposes of identifying voters...and remain confident the Supreme Court will confirm our interpretation. Nonetheless, per the Supreme Court’s order, we have advised the Shelby Election Commission to accept the city-issued library cards from Memphis for the Nov. 6 election in Shelby County. For 94 out of 95 Tennessee counties, today’s order from the court will have no impact: State- or federally-issued photo IDs are the only forms of identification that will be accepted. In Shelby County only, the city-issued library photo ID cards will also be accepted in accordance with the court’s directive.”
(Linda S. Wallace can be reached at theculturalcoach.com)