State's Highest Court Will Arbitrate Dispute Over Voter Photo ID Law

Nov 1, 2012

After the presidential election, the Tennessee Supreme Court will get involved in a dispute between the state and its largest city, Memphis, over a law that requires voters show a photo ID, but in the meantime, the court says that new Memphis Public Library cards, which include a picture, must be accepted at the polls today (the last day of early voting) and Election Day November 6.

A Republican-controlled state legislature passed the law requiring citizens produce a photo ID in order to vote in 2011 and a Republican governor signed it. Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, a Democrat, sued on behalf of two women who tried to vote using their library cards in the August election.

Attorney for the City of Memphis Herman Morris argued that the state law was unconstitutional and that the new library-issued photo IDs should be acceptable for voting. Morris maintains that the state law requiring a photo ID discourages people from going to the polls, “The whole approach by the city was focused on finding ways, options and alternative ways to facilitate the Tennessee Voter Photo ID [law] so more citizens could satisfy it and cast their vote.”

Secretary of State Tre Hargett disagrees. Hargett said today his office is pleased the Tennessee Supreme Court will take up the issue, “We continue to believe the [Tennessee] General Assembly clearly intended for only state or federally-issued photo IDs to be valid for the purposes of identifying voters and remain confident the Supreme Court will confirm our interpretation.”

Prior to the Tennessee Supreme Court order today, people who arrived at the polls with a library-issued photo ID, or without a valid photo ID, were offered paper provisional ballots. Each of those ballots was then sealed in an orange envelope. The Administrator of Elections for Shelby County Richard Holden said today that out of more than 180,000 early voters so far, 19 had their provisional ballots sealed in the special orange envelope. “It doesn’t appear to be an issue with a significant number of voters,” Holden said.

Senior Reporter for the Memphis Daily News Bill Dries said, “The City of Memphis has taken a stand that it is not necessarily how many people would be effected, but the idea that even one potential voter could be effected.”

One the other hand, Dries said, the Tennessee Secretary of State maintains that voter fraud is a problem in the state, “He believes, and the state officials backing the law believe, that it is easy to get a library card in someone else’s name.”

Voter photo ID laws have become a divisive, partisan issue in multiple states. According to the Brennan Center For Justice, Tennessee is one of 14 states to pass restrictive voting laws that could impact the November 6 election, but there is one element that Dries said makes Tennessee different from other states that have passed similar laws: a 2005 special election for a Shelby County state senate seat in which dead people voted.

“The Tennessee discussion of this particular law was one that had specific instances of voter fraud,” Dries said.

After the election, it will be up to Tennessee's highest court to arbitrate between the City of Memphis and the state and Dries said other states will be watching the outcome, “There is a broader, national discussion about these kind of laws.”