October 24, 2014

Judge: Memphis Library Cards Aren’t Voter ID

New library cards that double as photo identification, a popular new innovation for residents in Memphis, TN, have triggered a legal dispute between the city and the state over whether the newly minted IDs alone should give cardholders access to vote. On July 31, a federal judge in Nashville may have settled the month-long controversy.

U.S. District Court Judge Aleta A. Traugher ruled that registered voters in Memphis cannot legally use the library cards as the picture ID required to cast a ballot. Primary elections started August 2 in Tennessee, although early voting has been going on for two weeks.

Traugher’s decision, part of a two-hour hearing, came after a legal challenge filed by the city arguing that the library cards met the criteria under a revised state voter law. As of Jan. 1, a photo ID card issued by a state or federal institution is required as proof of identity before a ballot can be cast – a driver’s license being the most likely option. Attorneys for the state told Traugher the city lacked legal authority to issue valid picture IDs for voters, according to media reports.

Having lost in court, it’s unclear what the city’s next step will be.

A Solution Looking for a Problem; a Lawsuit Looking for a Plaintiff

A lawsuit had been expected almost from the first day – July 5 – the new library card initiative was rolled out in Memphis. The city’s library system, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, Jr. said, is the very embodiment of a state institution. So there was no doubt the cards fit the requirements set down in the state law.

“We think we’re on strong ground,” Wharton said in a telephone interview last week. “What we have here is, a solution looking for a problem.”

However, the state never saw eye-to-eye with the Memphis mayor’s position.

On July 10, Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins ordered Shelby County voting officials not to accept the Memphis library cards as proper ID. Any would-be voter that presented one, he instructed, should be issued a provisional ballot. That ballot would be sealed and counted only when the resident returned within two business days with another valid form of photo ID. Early voting in Memphis began three days after Goins’ decision.

Wharton, backed by a 33-page legal opinion from his city attorney issued in January, publicly challenged Goins’ ruling. In a series of public comments, the mayor seemed eager to throw the city’s legal muscle behind any citizen willing to file a lawsuit against the state.

On July 26, that plaintiff came forward.

Daphne Turner-Golden, an elderly Memphis resident who said her newly obtained library card was the only photo ID currently in her possession, claimed she tried, unsuccessfully, to vote with that card at two separate polling stations.

Golden is not alone. In the court complaint filed on her behalf, city attorneys wrote, “The State of Tennessee has acknowledged that at least 126,000 Tennesseans age 60 or older and who are registered voters, do not have a drivers license with a picture. Indeed, it has been estimated that as many as ten percent of the 3,900,000 registered voters of Tennessee do not have a picture identification card. That would mean that perhaps as many as 390,000 Tennesseans who are registered to vote may not have the newly required identification.”

“What we’re trying to do with the state law is to enforce it,” Regina Morrison Newman, a deputy city attorney, said of the city’s legal action.

Furthermore, according to the legal complaint, Golden was actively discouraged from filling out a provisional ballot at both polling places.

Newman said there was a second Memphis resident, who did not want to be named, who suffered the same treatment as Golden. “I’ve seen them being discouraged,” she told LJ last week. “And we have video.”

Helping Voters Helps the Library

The cards were Wharton’s brainchild. But Keenon McCloy, the city’s director of libraries, told Library Journal the library system in no way felt “caught in the middle” or came to regret the new initiative. In fact, McCloy said, the new cards speak to the library system’s very mission.

“We market extensively and in many creative ways, but this initiative provides an additional opportunity to create new customers,” McCloy said. “We take pride in the variety of services offered at all library locations, so if we can get them in for the photo ID library card, we believe they’ll become library customers for life.  The library definitely benefits from this value-added service.”

Memphis’ 18-branch library network counted about 420,000 cardholders (out of 660,000 residents) before the photo ID cards became available free to residents over the age of 18.

McCloy said 1,077 photo library cards have been issued as of close of business on Friday, July 27. That number, she added, is growing daily. So far, about 71 percent were issued to current library patrons, while 29 percent – more than 300 people – were new customers.

If getting photo ID is the primary motivation for obtaining a new library card, McCloy says, then so be it. “We’re all about removing barriers,” she said. “This is one great example of removing a barrier.”

So far, $67,173.10 has been spent on the photo library cards, McCloy said, which “covers all locations and supplies.” The mayor said no additional city funds were allocated for this expense. “We did it within the existing budget,” Wharton said. “We may have moved some funds around.”

Fair and reasonable access?

An undercurrent running throughout this controversy is the question of whether eligible voters were being provided with fair and reasonable access to the polls – an all-too familiar concern in the American South and in cities such as Memphis, which has a large percentage of African-American residents.

In comments to the media, state officials strongly denied that any voters have been disenfranchised in any way under the new voter ID law, but it wasn’t long before the Memphis library card dispute caught the attention of the Tennessee ACLU and the NAACP’s local branch.

Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Van E. Turner was another early supporter of the city’s action. “We support the library card initiative,” he told LJ. “We think it’s a good program. Anything that can be used to give more access to the ballot we’re in favor of.”

Meanwhile, Goins, at the Tennessee Election Commission, wondered why Memphis officials never checked with the state to see if photo ID library cards would fit the parameters of the law, particularly since the city attorney’s legal ruling was written in January.

“This issue with the library cards just reared its head two weeks ago,” Goins told LJ. “No one told any of the election officials. We were never consulted. We had to read about it in the newspaper.”

At press time, Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper’s office had yet to issue a statement on the matter.

Not Just For Voting (And Books)

While Wharton is upfront about the fact that the library cards were intended as a tool to help Memphis citizens vote, during a recent telephone interview with LJ the mayor also stressed other civic-minded reasons for their creation.

“The genesis lies in a horrible incident that occurred last summer,” Wharton said.

According to various Memphis officials, a city employee died at his home during a heat wave about a year ago. The victim had no utilities, including electricity, at the residence, at least partly because he had no driver’s license and lacked the photo ID necessary to get service from Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW).

The new library cards solve that kind of dilemma, the mayor said.

Besides MLGW, McCloy said the new library cards are recognized as proof of residency by the city of Memphis Division of Human Resources and the Workforce Investment Network, a community resource for job training and placement.

The Library Landscape

A spokesman for State Librarian and Archivist Charles A. Sherrill declined comment on the controversy, citing the litigation. But Dinah Harris, president of the Tennessee Library Association, sided with Memphis officials in comments emailed to LJ.

“We applaud the Memphis Public Library for their vision and zeal to serve their citizens,” Harris said. “Since the Memphis Public Library has very stringent requirements to verify identification in order to obtain a library card, it makes sense that their card should be able to be used for voter identification.”

Asked how many other library systems in Tennessee have issued photo ID cards, Harris said, “There is no state report that requires that information, so I am not aware of any other public library that has photo IDs. I think it would be fair to assume this is a new thing for the public libraries.”

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