Dorothy Cooper incident in Chattanooga highlights parties' split regarding photo ID law

Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 10:05pm

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.”   

11 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 10/24/11 at 6:18

There's no reason that the temporary problem of one elderly lady had
with a less than well trained employee should blow up an entire reasonable
law on these ID's. She was not voting after all, only attempting to receive
the ID. If voting she would have been given a conditional ballot to vote on!

This author and the liberal press are using this law as a PR tool to continue
their crusade to make a large portion of the populace to feel "suppressed or
disrespected" by the other party! In fact, in Tennessee, 67% of democrats
surveyed support this law as well as a large majority of Republicans.

It's now the law and the state has bent over backwards to make receiving
these ID's free and as convenient as possible to any who need them.
The legislature need do no more than what has been done to implement
a long needed law.

By: marymancini on 10/24/11 at 7:05

The devil is in the details of this law. The law requires a government-issued photo ID and the requirements necessary for Tennesseans to comply with the law are restrictive and excessive.

For instance, TN has 95 counties but only about half of them have the driver services facilities that print the required government issues IDs needed to satisfy this law. That means people in rural communities have to travel two and three counties away to get what they need.

Then, once they get there, they have to produce an excessive amount of documentation to get the ID.

This law will affect seniors like Mrs. Cooper, but it will also affect the disabled community, people who work two and three jobs just to make ends meet and don’t have the luxury of taking the time off work to stand in line for hours at the driver services center to get a photo ID, and people in rural communities.

By: govskeptic on 10/24/11 at 7:35


You are way behind on what the state is doing on these ID's: First of all
there are only about 19 counties that don't have the Dept of Safety
facilities, and in those counties the County Court Clerks are going to
provide the ID's. The disabled can vote absentee ballots, and the
documentation required for those that needed it is certainly not
outrageous at all-any local elections office can tell them what is
acceptable with a phone call. Exaggeration of this required ID is
very overblown by it's opponents!

By: TonyGottlieb on 10/24/11 at 7:39

Seriously, while you're riding around collecting your social security check, medicare coverage, driving down the Fed Interstate highway system, talking on FCC regulated air waves about your kid's college loan,food stamps, EITC, Section 8 Housing, WIC credits, victim's compensation, federally backed mortgage and bank accounts, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. (ad nauseum), is it too much to ask of you to take a few minutes to drop by an understaffed State citizen ID center in order to clarify that you're ENTITLED to the entire litany of Federal and State government benefits because you are a citizen of the GREATEST NATION THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN?

By: pswindle on 10/24/11 at 8:14

I think that TN has had enough of Maggart. Who does she think that she is? They know, we know and evryone knows why we have this law. Why has every newly elected GOP governor or GOP governors come up with this silly idea? It is to keep the voting low so they can win. TN is not as stupid as some lawmakers are hoping for. When they are caught doing their dirty, they come up with all of these talking points about it being best for TN.

By: tennesseeshadow on 10/24/11 at 8:37

Yes, we need a photo ID to buy beer, smokes and get on an airplane, but everybody in society doesn't do those things. And it is true you need a photo ID to get in public housing, but people without ID don't live in public housing. Photo ID for voting is a national effort by Republicans and there are over five million lawfully registered voters in the United States without photo ID. To say we need photo ID for voting is to say Election Commissions are too stupid to keep up with who is voting. Photo ID is a fix to a problem that doesn't exist. The real problem in our system in Tennessee is the Change of Address process and photo ID doesn't solve this. A person can change there address of registration with the Election Commission without any documentation. It's basically the honor system. This mean the voter can chose a race to vote in (say for Council) and claim an address in that district, vote in the election and simply change back before the next election. Photo ID is the wrong focus. Fix Change of Address. That is where the real fraud lies and it's being ignored.

By: Moonglow1 on 10/25/11 at 6:11

Moonglow1: Individuals have fought hard to ensure citizens of the United States of America have the right to vote. Women fought for that right. There has never been rampant voter fraud in this state. So. Why this law now? Apparently our governor is a tool of ALEC and their "model" legislation which is brought to the citizens of the United States of America by the infamous Koch brothers and Republican governors whom they utilize as tools to further their agenda to take away your rights. Unfortunately from the earlier comments those of you so quick to denigrate others should think again: the Koch's are coming for you next. They and Haslam are the 1 percent, but you the 99 percent are not safe from these attacks against democracy and freedom.

By: skeptic1 on 10/25/11 at 7:22

You voter fraud deniers only have to look to Shelby County for examples. It is surely a coincidence that the Ford family are heavily involved in the funeral business and also find several dead people to vote for them. I suppose it is in appreciation of their fine mortuary services.

By: cyndietodd on 10/25/11 at 7:52

Common sense discretion at the DMV? Laughable.

By: tennesseeshadow on 10/25/11 at 8:50

skeptic1, there is a difference between voter fraud and election fraud. The Shelby County situation you discribed is election fraud. It is committed by the election workers, not the voters. Photo ID does nothing to stop election fraud. Dirty election workers are not asking for photo IDs of the dead people they are casting votes for. Photo ID is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

By: Oblio on 10/25/11 at 9:24

Why is voter fraud such a big issue? Who decided that laws to protect against election fraud should not be enforced because voting machines that can be audited cost too much? Does anyone really believe that electronic voting machines used in Tennessee elections are tamper proof - even if election officials are one hundred percent honest. Would you bet your life on it? So, can the 2012 elections be rigged? Sure. Will they be rigged? Probably not, at least not in Tennessee. On the other hand, the odds for a rigged election from election fraud are thousands of times greater than for an election being rigged by voter fraud - even without photo IDs.

Until machines that permit verification are purchased and utilized, all elections should be cast on paper ballots. Security? Well, a lot of the young men and women who have been risking their lives to secure democracy over seas will soon be back home. I bet they could be even more successful performing a similar task here at home.