Dividing to Conquer: TN Voter Registration Laws

On September 13th, 2011, 96-year-old Dorothy Cooper waited patiently for over an hour at the DMV station in Chattanooga, TN to get her now mandatory state-issued photo ID. An active citizen, Cooper has missed only one election since 1933, and desired only to continue to exercise her fundamental right to vote. Stepping up to the clerk on duty, she presented one of her recent rent receipts, a copy of her lease, her voter registration card and her birth certificate, only to be informed that, due to the presence of her maiden name on her birth certificate, she did not have the proper paperwork required to redeem a “free” voter ID.

With similar Republican blitzes on voter laws occurring in many states across the country, many will meet the same fate as Cooper. Though proponents claim that these new stipulations are necessary to purify democracy, they are sure to disproportionately affect the less fortune and less able, as well as disenfranchise economic and ethnic minorities. The new Tennessee bill, signed into law by Republican Governor Bill Haslam, has little to do with preventing voter fraud; it has instead effectively implemented a modern day barrier to voting that is solely intended to ultimately suppress predominantly Democratic-leaning voters. Although the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawed the use of a poll tax, Tennessee’s Tea Party conservative politicians, who, lest we forget, love to reference their beloved Constitution (that is, as long as it supports their argument) have implemented just that. No, they are not stipulating a fee to enter the voting booth per se, but for some Tennessee residents living in rural areas, nothing would be more taxing than driving three counties over to the nearest DMV station in order to redeem their “free” Voter ID.

The ramifications of the new law affect not only the poor and elderly, but also another predominately Democratic-leaning constituency: students. In past elections, student ID’s from the state’s universities have been accepted as a valid form of identification at polling locations, but not anymore. Now, in order to make their voices heard, students will be forced to obtain another ID that lists their new college residence or complete absentee ballot requisitions through their home county’s election administrator in hopes of qualifying, by meeting convoluted timing deadlines, varying from county to county, for an absentee ballot. In hopes of discouraging demographics that tend to vote for their opponents, the Republican Party has assumed a position on yet another issue that is detrimental to most people, excluding the privileged.

Sure, if voter fraud was an actual issue in Tennessee’s voting system, then we should be looking for ways to combat such a problem, but it is not. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law published these findings regarding the voter fraud myth. “Fraud by individual voters is both irrational and extremely rare, occurring .0009 percent of the time and less. The National Weather Service data shows Americans are struck and killed by lightning about as often. Voter fraud is most often invoked as a substantial problem in order to justify particular election policies. Chief among these is the proposal that individuals be required to show photo identification in order to vote — a policy that disenfranchises up to 10 percent of eligible citizens.” In Tennessee, where, according to The Election Project, voter participation ranks 49th out of 50 states, elected officials should be looking for ways in which to increase the number of citizens voting, not effectively disqualify 10 percent from doing so.

The legislature claims to preserve voting integrity, but with the evidence clearly showing how regressive and counter-intuitive the law actually is, we must ask ourselves the question: Is the Republican party attempting to make the voting system in America more democratic or less democratic?

Works Cited

Levitt, Justin, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law “The Truth About Voter Fraud.” (2007)

McDonald, Dr. Michael. “2010 General Election Turnout Rates.” United States Elections Project. http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2010G.html.

This article was written by Austin Brown and originally appeared in the print edition of the Vanderbilt Political Review.

Image credit: [http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f1/Tennessee_state_capitol.jpg]