State's top court upholds voter ID law

Staff Reports • Updated Oct 18, 2013 at 10:40 AM

Tennessee’s Supreme Court Thursday upheld the state’s Voter Identification Act.

Ruling on constitutional challenges to the state’s Voter Identification Act by the City of Memphis and two Shelby County voters, the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously declined to overturn the Act.

Chief Justice Gary Wade delivered the opinion of the Court with Justices Janice Holder, Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee joining. Justice William Koch, Jr. filed a concurring opinion.

The Act, which was passed in 2011, requires voters to present government-issued photo identification in order to cast a ballot in state or federal elections.

“[W]hile in-person voter fraud may be rare…incidents of voter impersonation have been documented in other parts of the country…and it is within the authority of the General Assembly to guard against the risk of such fraud in this state, so long as it does not do so in an impermissibly intrusive fashion,” wrote Wade in the court’s opinion.

As originally written, the law authorized several acceptable forms of identification, one of which was a valid photographic identification card issued by an entity of the State of Tennessee.

In response to the new law, the City of Memphis Public Library began issuing photo identification cards to its patrons.

Shelby County residents Daphne Turner-Golden and Sullistine Bell attempted to vote in the August 2012 primary using their library cards but were turned away by election officials.

Prior to the 2012 general election, Turner-Golden and Bell, along with the City of Memphis, filed suit, arguing that the photo identification requirement violated state constitutional protections and that the City of Memphis library cards were valid identification.

The trial court denied relief on all counts.

The Court of Appeals, however, affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the library cards were acceptable identification under the Act, but also concluding that the photo identification requirement was constitutional.

Because early voting for the 2012 general election was underway, the Court of Appeals ordered election officials to accept cards from the Memphis Public Library. The Supreme Court granted review in November of 2012 and ordered election officials to continue to accept cards from the Memphis Public Library during the general election.

On April 23, 2013, the General Assembly amended the Voter Identification Act so that cards issued by municipal libraries were specifically excluded as valid identification. Because of the April 2013 amendments, the Supreme Court first ruled that all issues pertaining to the validity of the Memphis Public Library cards were moot.

In addition, the Court ruled that the individual plaintiffs, Turner-Golden and Bell, had legal standing to challenge the Act, but the City of Memphis, which obviously did not have a vote, did not.

Finally, the Court held that the version of the Act in effect at the time of the 2012 primary election met constitutional standards, concluding that the legislature has the prerogative to enact laws guarding against the potential risk of voter fraud and determining that the additional requirements placed on voters were not so severe as to violate protections set out in the Tennessee Constitution.

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