(Note: This is a Sunday column, written for the News Sentinel.)
The photo ID flap has gone off on an interesting tangent in Mississippi, while in Tennessee Democrats are denouncing the idea as a voter suppression plot and Republicans are striving to justify it as a defense against election thieves.
Mississippi is putting the issue to a statewide vote this November. An Associated Press report says Republican strategists think this will boost conservative turnout, helping their guys win big in the gubernatorial race and otherwise.
But bear in mind that no photo ID will be required for the election and, if they’re right about the rampant voter fraud afoot, the thieves could carry the day. A guess is that they’re right about arousing conservative rage with fraud fears but wrong about any rampant voter fraud.
In Tennessee, where the issue has already been decided by the Republican Legislature, the GOP has no fear of vote thievery to boost turnout. Indeed, some of the claims of concern about voter fraud are, well, at least debatable.
Last week, for example, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron held a news conference to declare he had found a convicted felon to be voting in Rutherford County — and a declared Democrat at that. This proves the law is needed, he said.
But it doesn’t. The fellow in question, it seems, was convicted of robbing a convenience store in 1984 and was still on probation when he registered to vote in 1992, though he apparently checked “yes” on the form where it asks if you have ever been convicted of a felony.
State law forbids felons from voting unless they go through the legal process of having their rights restored. State law further, however, allows felons who have done their time to have a driver’s license, with photo.
Thus, the photo ID law would have done nothing to prevent this man from voting. Rather, that was a foul-up by election officials who paid no attention to the felony checkmark and let him register.
The law will, however, prevent 126,000 registered voters, aged 60 and older, from voting even though they have a perfectly valid driver’s license — unless they go get another card with a picture on it. Thousands more registered voters don’t have a driver’s license or any other photo ID, though they have been voting for years and now find themselves required to make a trip to a driver’s license station to cast a ballot next year.
Thus the fear in Tennessee is from Democrats concerned that the new law will reduce turnout as less-than-enthusiastic supporters stay at home to avoid the hassle of getting a new photo ID.
The impacted voters are generally older and/or poorer than folks with a nice SUV and home in the suburbs. And such folks tend to vote Democratic.
Also note that the new law specifically prohibits college-issued photo ID cards as voter ID. Again, suspicions are that this demographic may also lean Democratic. Also inadequate for voting are photo ID cards issued by city and county governments. Our most populous cities are still Democrat-governed and, thus, the city and county employees there may be expected to vote Democratic.
Thus, the Democratic fears are understandable. But if those affected voters get mad about the Republican effort to discourage them from voting, it could actually become a turnout generation tool. And the Democrats have more than a year to work on that anger-arousing proposition.
It just might be wise for both sides to repeal some of the new law’s more pointless provisions.
It is submitted that someone who has jumped through hoops to get a valid driver’s license and a voter registration card and is age 60 or older — without a photo affixed — should be accepted as readily at the polls as a former felon who has a photo ID.
And do we really think our colleges and universities, or our city and county governments, are going to conspire to sneak illegal voters into the polls?
In other words, the list of acceptable IDs can be broadened without any real concern for fraud promotion. And what’s wrong with the idea of having folks get their picture made when they register to vote, then issuing a photo voter ID? That could be phased in easily as new folks register, change addresses and such.
Republicans rejected the idea, proposed by Democrats, in the last legislative session, worried about the cost. But the cost of providing digital cameras to county election offices likely wouldn’t be much more than that of issuing free ID to those without a photo driver’s license.