December 18, 2014

After Courts Reject Library Card as Voter ID, Memphis Appeals Requirement

Looking to reverse two earlier setbacks in court, attorneys for the City of Memphis (and two registered voters) last week asked Tennessee’s Court of Appeals to hear its challenge to the state’s picture identification voter requirement, a legal battle rooted in the city’s decision to issue library cards to be used as photo ID.

But the appeals court in Nashville has not determined when it will hear the case, a court clerk told Library Journal on Tuesday. According to The Tennessean, the appeal requested a hearing no later than Oct. 12. Early voting for the Nov. 6 general election begins Oct. 15.

“We’re asking for a determination that it’s unconstitutional,” George Barrett, a Nashville lawyer representing the plaintiffs told LJ. In interviews, Barrett has likened Tennessee’s photo-voter requirement to the poll tax used in the South during the Jim Crow era. He stood by that assertion. “The purpose of the poll tax is to suppress the vote,” Barrett told LJ. “The purpose of the photo ID law is to suppress the vote.”

“We were pleased with the last couple of rulings we received in court and we hope and expect we will be successful at the appellate level as well,” Blake Fontenay, communications director for Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, told LJ. Fontenay said his office could not comment further on the matter, given the continuing court action.

Tennessee voters are required to show a form of photo ID issued by a state or federal institution (such as a driver’s license) before casting a ballot; opponents say this improperly blocks voting access to thousands of legally registered residents, many of whom are poor or members of minority groups.

State officials say photo IDs are readily available through a host of state and federal agencies, and are necessary to curtail voter fraud.

In a national study, News21, a part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, found 14 cases of reported voter fraud in Tennessee since 2000, none of which were cases of voter impersonation.

In July, Memphis officials announced that new library cards—bearing the holder’s photo—would be available, for free, to residents. Mayor A.C. Wharton touted the cards as way to comply with the state’s amended voter law. The library cards, he said, qualified as sufficient ID at the polls, a handy resource given that early voting for county elections was scheduled to begin within days. The idea was an immediate hit; a month later, more than 1,000 of these photo library cards had been issued.

The state, however, disagreed. Libraries, it declared, did not qualify as a viable state institution. Tennessee’s state elections coordinator ordered polling stations in Memphis not to accept the photo library cards as ID. Voters trying to use them would be issued provisional ballots instead, meaning their selections would be counted only after presenting other valid proof of identity.

In less than a month, the dispute moved into the courts, where the City of Memphis’ argument was dealt the first of two defeats by a judge.

On July 31, a U.S. District Court judge, after a two-hour hearing in Nashville, ruled that Memphis voters could not legally use the picture ID library cards as the sole means of proving their identity at the polls.

The next step was Chancery Court of Davidson County, where the City of Memphis and registered voters Daphne Turner-Golden and Sullistine Bell joined as plaintiffs. During a three-hour hearing before Davidson County Chancellor Carol McCoy on Sept. 26, Barrett asked that the state’s picture ID requirement be declared unconstitutional, that enforcement be postponed until all registered voters had a chance to be in compliance, or that City of Memphis library cards be allowed. McCoy declined each request.

“I’m very disappointed,” Barrett told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal following McCoy’s ruling. “Anytime the state infringes on the right to vote, they’re taking something away from us, and they’re taking something away from us in this instance. Let’s not fool around; everybody knows what’s going on. You have to have your head in the sand if you don’t. It’s been going on all over the country since 2010. To play like it’s something innocent to protect the ballot is nonsense.”

Barrett told LJ he was heartened by a court decision last week in Pennsylvania, where a judge blocked an important component of a voter ID law in that state. That decision means voters in that state will not have to present a state-approved photo ID in order to cast a ballot. A similar requirement has been placed on hold until after the election in Mississippi, according to the Huffington Post, while federal officials review whether the measure is discriminatory.

During the Sept. 26 hearing, Barrett’s co-counsel, Douglas Johnston, told McCoy that strict photo ID requirements for voting were enacted in many states “because in 2008, African-Americans and young people and poor people came out in droves to vote. These are the people who these laws most impact.”

According to the Pew Research Center, black voter turnout increased 5 percentage points nationwide from 2004 to 2008, and young voter turnout increased by about 2 percent. According to Project Vote, first time voting among the poor nearly doubled from 2004 to 2008; first time black voters grew by about 2 percent and first time young voters by 1 percent.

The Brennan Center for Justice, part of the New York University School of Law, has tracked in detail the number of states that have tried to adopt voter ID laws in time for the 2012 presidential election. Tennessee is included on that list, but is not considered a hotly contested “battleground” state in this election.

Meanwhile, City of Memphis residents continue to get their picture ID library cards. Keenon McCloy, director of libraries in Memphis, told LJ that another 800 have been issued since early August, bringing the current total up to about 1,800.

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