November 24, 2014

Tennessee Supreme Court: Library Photo ID Can’t Be Used for Voting

A recent defeat in Tennessee Supreme Court ended any chance that photo identification cards issued by the Memphis Public Library can be used as voter ID—at least for now. But Memphis City Attorney Herman Morris says the yearlong legal battle produced at least one significant victory, and hinted at future challenges to the state law.

Meanwhile, Memphis will continue to distribute library cards bearing photo IDs, an innovation that remains popular with patrons some 16 months after they first became available to residents. About 7,300 have been issued to date, Director of Libraries Keenon McCloy told LJ this week, and demand for them remains steady.

The cards were created in in July 2012, shortly after Tennessee began requiring photo ID to vote. And while the cards were not expressly created to serve as voter ID, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton was convinced they could and should serve that function, as well as others.

“It’s a good idea, period,” Morris said of the cards, which debuted in August 2012. “It in fact was a need.”

But those library cards will no longer grant Memphis residents access to the voting booth, as they did for the 2012 presidential elections, after a tangled court fight was well under way. That fight has concluded with a defeat for the city.

On Oct. 17, the state Supreme Court upheld the Tennessee Voter Identification Act. The four-judge panel unanimously agreed the law did not place an undue burden on residents lacking a driver’s license, or other forms of picture ID issued by the state or federal government. The finding came in response to a suit filed by the City of Memphis and two registered voters, who argued the library cards were both valid and necessary as voter ID.

“We are pleased but not surprised by this decision,” Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett said in a statement to LJ this week. “At the same time, we are not interested in spiking the football.”

Closing the Loophole

Confusingly, the state Supreme Court’s recent decision reverses a previous ruling by…the state’s Supreme Court. Just before Election Day 2012, the Supreme Court had backed a ruling by the state Court of Appeals allowing the library cards to count as primary voter ID when Memphis residents went to the polls to choose a president. Said Morris, “We won on game day.”

However, after that defeat, in April the state legislature amended the statute, allowing only those picture ID cards issued by the “state of Tennessee or the United States.” The revision included language specifically mentioning a “public library” as one type of county or municipal institution that did not meet the law’s requirement.

In its latest ruling, the Supreme Court said the state had a right to protect against fraud by demanding picture verification before letting voters cast a ballot. In his decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary R. Wade wrote “the integrity of the election process empowers the state to enact laws to prevent voter fraud before it occurs, rather than only allowing the state to remedy fraud after it has become a problem.” The ruling added, “It is within the authority of the General Assembly to guard against the risk of such fraud in this state, so long as it does not do so in an impermissibly intrusive fashion.”

“In summary, the 2013 amendments to the (voter ID) Act rendered moot all issues pertaining to the validity of the photo ID cards issued by the Library,” Justice William C. Koch Jr. wrote in a concurring opinion.

No further challenge… for now

George E. Barrett, attorney for the two Memphis residents Daphne Turner-Golden and Sullistine Bell, who were turned away after trying to use their library cards to gain access to the polls, said his clients have little recourse for appeal. This type of challenge to a state constitution, he noted, does not allow for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Morris said the city, too, plans no further legal challenge at this time, but added, “We’re not saying other challenges won’t be brought in the future,” Morris said. “We’re taking this a game, or an election, at a time.… There are a lot of elections between now and 2016.”

Hargett, in his statement to LJ, said only that the state will continue working to ensure “fair and honest elections” for everyone in Tennessee.

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