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Loosening of voter ID rules in Memphis a source of puzzlement

By   /   November 9, 2012  /   Comments Off

By CHRISTOPHER BUTLER

On Election Day this year, residents of Memphis were allowed to present a locally-issued library card as their voter ID — as opposed to the more traditional driver’s licenses, passports, or other state and federally issued IDs.

This, after the Tennessee Supreme Court ordered that, for this election, Memphis officials accept library cards with a photo ID from registered voters for this year’s presidential election. Memphis officials oppose the current state law saying ID’s must be federally or state issued and took the matter to court.

State officials are appealing an earlier Court of Appeals ruling that stated voters may use city-issued library IDs when voting.

Tennessee Supreme Court officials have not yet heard arguments in the state’s appeal, but they specified that state officials must still permit Memphis voters to use library cards as voter ID.

Tennessee Watchdog asked two library system employees about its requirements for issuing library cards. Tennessee Watchdogalso asked what procedures library officials have in place to prevent someone from fraudulently obtaining a library card using someone else’s name.

Voters in Memphis wait in line to vote at the Cherokee Branch Library (photo by CHRISTOPHER BUTLER)

Those two library employees gave somewhat conflicting answers.

In one instance, in which Tennessee Watchdog identified itself in person, an employee of the Cherokee Branch Library said no one could acquire a library card without showing a driver’s license or government issued ID. People also must present a proof of address, such as an official bill they received in the mail.

“Anyone who wants a library card but doesn’t have a voter ID really has no other option but to go to a driver’s license testing place and get a Voter ID,” she said.

In another instance, in which Tennessee Watchdog did not identify itself over the phone, an employee at the library’s Information Center said a person could acquire a library card by presenting a birth certificate or a Social Security card  — neither of which have photo identification.

Tennessee Watchdog specifically wanted to know one important thing — what was the purpose in local officials wanting to extend voting ID privileges to people with library cards? Especially when they could not have acquired their library cards in the first place without first having a driver’s license or some other state or federally-issued ID?

Why, for instance, could those people not instead simply present the state or federal ID’s that they already have?

Messages seeking further clarification with the Memphis Public Library System’s media relations’ officer were not returned before press time.

Additionally, messages left with the Shelby County Election Commission’s media relation’s officer also were not returned.

MIXED OPINIONS

Tennessee Watchdog traveled to four different polling places in Memphis on Election Day and asked voters how they felt about the matter.

Almost all of the voters were unanimous in their support for re-electing President Obama, yet they differed sharply in their support for library cards as a voter ID.

Betty Isom, for instance, used her state-issued Voter ID, but she had hoped to see someone use his or her library card, out of curiosity.

“I wanted to see it myself. I asked everyone in there if they were using a library card to get in. The only people I saw had state IDs — but I still really want to see it.”

“I’ve been on this Earth 59 years, and I never knew you could use your library card to vote. We always had voter registration cards or a state ID. This is the first I’ve ever heard of someone being allowed to use a library card,” Isom said.

Another voter, Whitney Moore, thinks using a library card as a voter ID is a bad idea.

“You can accidentally leave a library card anywhere for someone else to find. It’s not like it’s a credit card or a driver’s license, when people are more careless. I worry about fraud,” Moore said.

Most voters, however, including Daphyne Smith, favored library cards as voter ID.

“We don’t want to restrict access. I do not worry about fraud because fraud has been so minimal in past elections. I don’t think it’s a big issue.”

David Martin, another voter, agreed.

“The library is a government-run organization, and the library is free and open to the public. I see no controversy in that,” Martin said, adding that legislators in Nashville should amend the law to allow voters statewide to use library cards as voter ID.

Aneesa Qadier, who used a driver’s license as her voter ID, also favored the idea — until asked about possible fraud.

“It’s a good question. I never thought of it that way,” Qadier said.

The Tennessee Supreme Court extended Memphis voters the right to use library cards after city officials filed a lawsuit claiming the state’s current voter ID laws disenfranchise certain voters. Court members extended the right for this election.

The Court had agreed to hear Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s appeal after Tuesday’s election.

Christopher Butler is the editor of Tennessee Watchdog and the Director of Government Accountability for the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Contact him at chris@beacontn.org

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