Gov. Bill Haslam says he has voiced concern to legislators that the new state law requiring voters to have photo identification will make it “unnecessarily hard” for some people to cast ballots in next year’s elections.
But the governor said he is not recommending changes in the new law or delaying implementation at this point.
“We haven’t made that recommendation to them yet,” Haslam said in an interview. “I think the way government works, you know, is that our job is to carry out things and also to propose things. At this point in time, all we’ve done is raise the issue.”
The new law, enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Haslam earlier this year, takes effect Jan. 1. The first election with the new law in effect will be March 6, the date of Tennessee’s presidential preference primary.
The Legislature meets Jan. 10, which means members could theoretically postpone the law before 2012 voting begins. Other elections will be held in August and November of 2012.
The lawmakers who spearheaded passage of the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, say they do not share the governor’s concern. House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron said they want “full steam ahead” with enforcement and implementation of the new requirement for voting.
Haslam said he is particularly concerned over voters who hold a Tennessee driver’s license with no photograph, which will not be valid for voting under the law. A separate state law makes photos optional on driver licenses for persons aged 60 or over.
The Department of Safety, which operates licensing centers, is offering free photo ID cards for voting, and it is opening on some Saturdays to serve citizens seeking a free ID. The state Division of Elections, meanwhile, is conducting a campaign to ensure voters know about the change in laws.
“While we’re working very hard to get our driver’s license centers to be a little more customer friendly, they’re not where they need to be yet,” Haslam said.
The Department of Safety has issued 8,445 voter identification cards since July 1, a spokeswoman said this week. Officials agree that about 126,000 Tennessee registered voters over age 60 have drivers licenses with no photograph, but there is some dispute about how many others may be impacted. Democrats say the potential number could reach 675,000. (Post on the numbers dispute HERE.)
“Given human nature, people tend not to address things until the last minute sometimes,” Haslam said. “I’m concerned about that last minute, when seniors say, ‘I really want to vote, I want to vote at the polling place, I don’t want to vote absentee.. Oh, I need to get a photo ID!’
“And I’m concerned about the waiting time (at driver’s licensing stations),” he said.
The law has been widely criticized by Democrats, who contend it is intended to create obstacles to voting by senior citizens, college students, low-income people who do not have a driver’s license or other acceptable photo ID.
Ketron, Maggart and most other Republican legislators have rejected such contentions and say the new law is needed to prevent voter fraud.
Democrats have already filed a bill for consideration in the General Assembly that would repeal the photo ID law.
House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said this week they also plan to file alternative legislation to delay implementation until the 2014 elections, to make more types of photo identification acceptable and to otherwise “fix” what they consider a flawed law.
Maggart and Ketron, however, said they see no reason for any changes in the law they had been pushing for four years before enactment. They hailed voter education efforts under way by the state election coordinator, Mark Goins.
Both Republicans said they found it ironic that a photo ID is required in some union elections while Democrats, who traditionally enjoy strong union support, are opposing photo ID for voting. They cited a recent photo published on the Politico website, showing a sign declaring “picture ID required to vote” at a union election.
Maggart conceded that it would be an inconvenience for some voters to get a photo ID, but said the benefits in credibility for the election system outweigh such considerations.
“That may be an annoyance, but look at what people have sacrificed for you to be able to vote,” she said. “People have fought and died in wars.”