September 23, 2014

TN Supreme Court: Memphis Library Cards Are Voter ID

Voters in Memphis, TN, can cast their ballots using nothing more than their photo library cards as the required government-issued picture identification, the state’s Supreme Court decided in a ruling handed down less than a week before Election Day.

The order, issued on Nov. 1, affirmed a key portion of a lower court’s ruling and effectively decided the winner of a months-long controversy pitting Memphis officials against their own state government. The fight was triggered by a decision in early July to create free photo library cards for Memphis residents. By the day of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling, a total of 2,129 had been issued, Director of Libraries Keenon McCloy told Library Journal.

The new photo library cards were touted by Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton, Jr. as a tool to help Memphis citizens vote in the wake of the recently passed state voter ID requirement, as well as to obtain other services that require ID, such as from Memphis Light, Gas, and Water; the Memphis Division of Human Resources; and the Workforce Investment Network. The state, however, contested the card’s status, arguing that a library did not qualify as a state or federal organization. The Supreme Court disagreed with this assertion.

The high court’s ruling included an order to Secretary of State Tre Hargett and State Election Coordinator Mark Goins to in turn inform officials in Shelby County, where Memphis is located, that Memphis library cards will be accepted as the required identification.

“The instructions are to accept as valid the Memphis photo library cards, which means those voters that present with a Memphis library photo ID would then be allowed to vote on the machines. And any voter who has cast a provisional paper ballot with a Memphis photo library ID would not need to do anything additional for their vote to be counted,” Robert Meyers, the Shelby County Election Commission chairman, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

A History of Confusion

The Supreme Court’s ruling brings to an end several months of back-and-forth. In July, Tennessee ordered the Shelby County Election Commission not to accept the library cards as sufficient proof of identity. The city of Memphis and two of its residents teamed up to challenge that ruling in court, but lost a pair of initial courtroom challenges. The state’s Court of Appeals heard the case next, and in mid-October handed down a split decision: Tennessee’s amended voter law was constitutional but the Memphis library cards should be accepted.

It was the state’s turn to appeal next, and it asked for a stay of that ruling. On Nov. 1, the Supreme Court agreed to hear that argument, but it declined to stay the Appeals court ruling, thereby allowing granting voters access to the polls bearing nothing more than the photo library cards as the required ID.

Following the Court of Appeals ruling, as early voting continued in Tennessee, officials in Memphis were alarmed to discover that residents producing only a photo library card were being given provisional ballots, according to a cease and desist letter authored by attorney George Barrett, who represented the plaintiffs, and sent to Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper.

“The State’s actions have already led to confusion among Memphis early voters, many of whom, including a Memphis city judge, have already attempted to vote with their photo library cards, only to be refused by poll workers,” Barrett wrote.

ID Still At Issue

The Supreme Court ruling was a victory for Memphis officials and anyone relying on the library cards as their sole form of photo ID. But it will not bring a halt to the legal challenges surrounding the larger issue of whether the voter ID requirement is itself constitutional, which could stretch far into 2013.

“It worked for this election anyhow,” Regina Morrison Newman, a deputy Memphis city attorney, told LJ. “The Supreme Court did accept the appeal, but they’re going to hear it after the election.”

While state officials in Tennessee and other places where photo ID is required to vote argue that picture proof is necessary to curtail voter fraud and is easy to obtain from a host of sources, opponents say these laws serve to restrict access to hundreds of qualified registered voters, the majority of them minority and lower-income residents, and are designed to benefit Republican candidates.

Similar voter ID laws have been negated by court rulings in Pennsylvania and Mississippi, to name only a few. The Brennan Center for Justice, part of the New York University School of Law, has tracked the number of states that have tried to adopt voter ID laws in time for the 2012 presidential election.

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