The future of Tennessee’s voter ID law heading into the November elections hangs in the balance as members of the state’s Court of Appeals weighed its constitutionality.
One day after polls opened for early voting, the three-member court heard arguments from the city of Memphis and two of its residents who say they were stripped of their right to vote due to the state’s new law requiring voters present a federal or state photo ID.
“Both the Constitution and the election statutes have a tension between maximizing participation and ensuring that those who participate are entitled to participate. That’s a tension that occasionally clashes and I think this might be one of those places where it does,” said Appeals Judge Andy Bennett.
“You want to have everybody who is entitled to vote, vote. And one way of making sure a person is entitled to vote is proving they are who they say they are and the best method is probably a photograph,” he said. He was joined by Judges Michael Swiney and Richard Dinkins on the court.
The judges appeared split on the issue and would normally take months to render a decision. But with early voting underway and the Nov. 6 Election Day near, a decision on the expedited case is expected within weeks. Both sides would have the option to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
One of the key issues for the judges was proving that two plaintiffs who appealed a lower court decision against them — Daphne Turner-Golden and Sullistine Bell — were burdened by the new law.
The two women voted using ID cards issued by the Memphis Public Library during the August primary election because they did not own any other form of state or federal government identification. Their votes and those of at least 160 others were not counted, according to their attorney, Douglas Johnston.
“It is obvious there is confusion and concern about this statute,” he said.
The law requires voters to bring a form of state or federally issued photo identification, such as a driver's license, military ID or handgun carry permit. The law also allows voters to present expired identification and IDs issued by other states, like a boating license.
Although the case is not a class action lawsuit, attorneys for both the city and the state took up issues that have become part of the larger discussion about the state’s voter ID law, such as why the Legislature chose to exclude university IDs from the list of acceptable methods to identify voters, whether a photo is necessary to prove a person’s identity and the rarity of voter fraud.
“All the other people they talked about are not plaintiffs and not before this court,” argued Janet Kleinfelter, the state’s deputy attorney general, who said the only burden the two residents who are plaintiffs in the case have is the time it takes to obtain a free photo ID.