By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican leaders say they expect some problems may arise from recent changes in electoral procedures when early voting starts Friday in Tennessee, but they hope to have the wrinkles ironed out by the general election in November.
Over the last few years, GOP lawmakers have pushed measures they say are needed to prevent voter fraud and “protect the integrity of the ballot box.” Ignoring objections from Democrats and voter advocates, they have purged voter rolls and enacted a photo identification requirement for voters.
Republicans also redrew the state’s electoral map in the once-a-decade redistricting process. As a result, some voters may not know where to cast their ballots.
“I do think there could be some confusion,” said former state Republican Party Chairwoman Robin Smith. “It is going to be something new.”
Early voting ends July 28. The state primary and county general elections are Aug. 2.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett acknowledged that “some voters go to the wrong precinct” after redistricting, but he said the state is making every effort to direct them to the right places.
“Proactively, if a polling location has been changed, local election commissions have been mailing voters new voter cards with the correct locations,” he said.
However, voter advocates say it’s not so much the results of redistricting but the stricter voting requirements that are troubling.
An Associated Press review of temporary ballots from Indiana and Georgia — which first adopted the most stringent voting standards — found that more than 1,200 such votes were tossed during the 2008 general election.
During sparsely attended primaries this year in Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee, hundreds more ballots were blocked.
Voting rights advocates say the numbers suggest that the legitimate votes rejected by the laws are far more numerous than are the cases of fraud that advocates of the rules say they are trying to prevent. They say thousands more votes could be in jeopardy this November, when more states with larger populations expect to have similar tough rules in place.
Democrats and voting rights groups fear that ID laws could disproportionately suppress votes among people most likely not to have driver’s license, such as the elderly, poor and minorities.
“Voting is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action. “We should be making it easier for people to express their political will at the ballot box and not harder.”
The city of Memphis says voters can use their library photo ID card at the polls. Memphis City Attorney Herman Morris opined earlier this year that the cards were issued by a “state entity” — the library system — and are valid under the terms of the new Voter ID law.
“This card, always a passport to knowledge, now provides new benefits including a photo ID for voting,” Morris said in a news release. “It satisfies the law and in our opinion; no one utilizing it for voting purposes should be challenged.”
However, state Election Coordinator Mark Goins said the library system is actually part of the city, and does not meet the requirements of the law. He said lawmakers made that decision during the recent General Assembly.
“Legislation allowing county and city municipalities to utilize a photo ID was voted down,” Goins said.
He said voters who use such identification won’t be turned away, but will be allowed to cast provisional ballots.
“That individual will have two business days after the election … to bring back the proper identification,” said Goins. He added that he doesn’t expect a large turnout for early voting and the primary because of a lack of major races on the ballot.
Smith said she too expects a meager voter showing, but still believes it’s a chance for election officials to alleviate any problems before the general election.
“It may offer an opportunity for the county election commissions to kind of use this as a trial run,” she said.
Lizzette Churchwell of Nashville and her 82-year-old mother, Carolyn — who has a driver’s license with a photo — plan to take advantage of the early voting period.
“I can get in and out, and avoid the hassle in November,” Churchwell said.