After contentious debate, Republicans on a House committee voted to derail the “Voter Confidence Act, which calls for new voting machines to be in place for next year’s elections with most costs covered by $35 million in federal funds.
Democrats tried to amend the bill to allow each county commission to decide whether it wants the new machines, which will provide a “paper trail” of ballots and which may require some spending beyond the allotted federal money. Republicans killed the amendment.
Democrats accused the Republicans of unfairly shutting off debate, ignoring local government independence and – as Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, put it – “treating us like we don’t even exist.”
“We treat you as you exist,” said House State and Local Government Committee Chairman Curry Todd, R-Collierville.
Todd joined Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, in declaring Republicans behaving more fairly than Democrats did when they held majorities in the House.
Independent Rep. Kent Williams, who considers himself a Republican though banished from the party, ultimately voted with Republicans, but at one point criticized GOP behavior.
“Just because we have the majority, let’s don’t run roughshod over people,” said Williams, who last year was House speaker.
The Voter Confidence Act was originally passed in 2008 and called for the new voting machines to be installed statewide by the 2010 elections. But Republican legislators in the last session led a successful push to delay implementation until 2012.
Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, brought HB386 to the committee, which would permit the new voting machines “if, and only if” the Legislature passes a specific line item in the budget requiring state government to pay any expense incurred by a county election commission as a result. Democrats said that effectively kills the entire program.
House Democratic Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville tried to amend the measure to allow county commissions to get the new machines, if they choose and themselves pay any extra cost.
“I assume we’re going to run right over local governments again. That seems to be a theme up here this year,” said Turner.
There was also lengthy discussion over whether a county commission or the county election commission, which has a Republican majority and members effectively appointed by legislators, should make such decisions on asking the Legislature to approve a special budget item for the machines. Republicans declared that election commissions should decide; Democrats that elected county commissioners should.
“County Commission doesn’t have any business getting involved in election commissions,” said Todd.
The Turner amendment was killed and the bill, as proposed by Dunn, was passed in party-line voting.
Democratic Bill Killed
The committee also killed HB1727 by Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, which would have allowed students at state colleges and universities to use their student identification card to vote.
The cards are not acceptable under a Republican bill, virtually assured of passage, that will require a government-issued photo identification for voting in the future. Armstrong said the cards must be validated by a university regularly and many students do not have a driver’s license.
But Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, a deputy sheriff, said fake student cards are in widespread use and not a reliable identification. Armstrong’s bill was then killed on a party-line vote.
“This is just a way to try to supress people from participating in the voting process,” said Armstrong.