Embarrassed nationally by news stories about Chattanooga’s Dorothy Cooper, state officials have shifted into damage-control mode to try to rebut claims that Tennessee’s new photo ID voter law is a Republican scheme to disenfranchise the poor and the elderly.
At the age of 96, Dorothy Cooper became a cause célèbre of the liberal media this month — the determined black lady who somehow managed to vote her whole life, throughout the Jim Crow era and beyond, only to be sent home empty-handed when she asked for one of the new state-issued photo IDs.
In a manila envelope she brought a rent receipt, a copy of her lease, her voter registration card and her birth certificate. But none of that was enough. A Safety Department bureaucrat turned her away because her maiden name, Dorothy Alexander, was typewritten on the birth certificate, and she didn’t have a marriage license to prove her name now is Cooper.
“I don’t know what difference it makes,” she said in one of the many interviews she has given since then.
At a news conference after Mrs. Cooper’s treatment became publicized, state officials were apologetic but determined to show her case was unusual.
Bill Gibbons, the commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security, admitted the clerk who rejected Mrs. Cooper made a mistake and should have given her the ID. Assistant commissioners directly under Gibbons reached out to Mrs. Cooper to make matters right. “I’ve said before and I’ll say again today that I don’t think that particular incident was handled the way it should have been,” Gibbons said. “I think we should have exercised some commonsense discretion and issued the photo ID to Mrs. Cooper, because I think it was fairly obvious that she was who she said she was.”
With Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Gibbons announced a new agreement with 30 county clerks across Tennessee to waive the $4 fee for ID cards. In addition, he said state driver service centers would open on the first Saturday of each month in 15 counties, including Davidson, to process would-be voters who lack driver’s licenses.
As for Mrs. Cooper, she was mulling whether to vote by absentee ballot — something that’s allowed under the law for everyone over the age of 65. She finally received an ID on Thursday.
“I hope Mrs. Cooper understands how much time and attention that people at all levels of state government have paid to her situation,” Hargett said. “While I will say that it was obvious from the get-go that she was inconvenienced … at the end of the day, it’s important to note that she’s going to be able to vote, whether she chooses to do it by absentee or with a photo ID.”
Under another state law, senior citizens have been able to have driver’s licenses without pictures, and there are more than 120,000 of these people who are registered to vote. In addition, Democrats say there are more than 600,000 Tennesseans of voting age who lack state-issued photo ID.
Democrats filed legislation last week to repeal the law. Senate Caucus chairman Lowe Finney said: “We have a duty as lawmakers to protect the ballot box, but we also have a duty to protect Tennessee citizens’ ability to vote. This new requirement will put hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans in danger of losing their right to vote. It’s our job to defend that right.”
Gibbons said only 214 voters so far had obtained the photo IDs available for those who don’t have driver’s licenses. He suggested there have been few hang-ups like Mrs. Cooper’s. But officials acknowledged they don’t keep track of the number of voters who are turned away at driver’s service centers for lack of proper documentation — the kind of hassles that Democrats say will discourage voting.
While the spotlight has been on the elderly and poor, the law’s critics say they expect college students to have difficulty meeting its requirements as well. College photo IDs aren’t valid at the polls under the law, so students without driver’s licenses will have to go for one of the state-issued IDs. That takes a birth certificate or passport and two forms of proof of residency, such as a utility bill or voter registration card. But for students living in dormitories, proof of residency isn’t so readily available. Under the law, a letter from the college dean or burser’s office will suffice as one piece of proof, but how many students know that?
“Number one, the prohibition on college IDs being used as identification is ridiculous,” said Caroline Rickard, president of the Tennessee Federation of College Democrats. “Public universities and colleges in Tennessee are tax-supported, public institutions, and the IDs issued by them should be considered state-issued IDs. The fact that they are not recognized and the requirements for establishing residency make it all but impossible for students who are from out of state but now live in Tennessee to prove their residency. Students who live in a dorm cannot produce an electric bill or a lease.”
On a wave of anti-Obama anger, Republicans took control of state legislatures across the country in the ’10 elections and enacted a raft of new election laws. In a study, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law has estimated those laws will make it harder for 5 million qualified voters to cast ballots.
Kansas, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin joined Tennessee in adopting photo ID laws. Other states curtailed early-voting periods and required proof of residency even to register to vote.
“It is too early to exactly quantify how the changes will impact voter turnout, but we know they will be a hindrance to many voters at a time when the United States continues to turn out less than two-thirds of its eligible citizens in presidential elections and less than half in midterm elections,” the Brennan Center said in the report.
Democrats contend the laws are aimed at suppressing the votes of traditional Democratic constituencies. Republicans maintain the laws are needed to prevent voter fraud, although they are hard-pressed to name cases that photo IDs would have prevented.
In Tennessee, Republican lawmakers scoff at the Democrats’ complaints.
“Tell me how people are buying beer and cigarettes?” asked Rep. Debra Maggart, the law’s House sponsor. “They have to have an ID to do that, a photo ID to do that. I have a hard time believing that all these people don’t have an ID. … You have to have a photo ID to get public housing. You have to have a birth certificate to get public housing. … I think there’s more people with a photo ID than they want to admit.”
Maggart said college IDs were made invalid for voting under the law because they are “randomly and quite frequently sold on the Internet. There seems to be a lot of fraud associated with college IDs.”
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said, “The only people I can see making any big deal about this is about four or five Democratic legislators and the press. Everywhere I go people say, ‘Hallelujah. Thank you for finally doing this.’ It’s almost unanimous.
“Let me assure you 90 percent of the people agree with this law that if you have to show a photo ID to get on a plane or buy a pack of cigarettes, then you ought to have to show one to vote. It’s not about disenfranchisement. This is about the integrity of the ballot box and people knowing for sure that you are who you say you are when you vote. It’s that simple.”