by Steven Hale
On Friday, Tom Humphrey told the story of Libby Miller, a "mentally challenged" 60-year-old who was turned away from the polls in August because she lacked the now legally required photo identification. Humphrey reports that Miller had previously voted in every election since she turned 18.
An excerpt from Humphrey's story is after the jump. As you read about Libby Miller's ordeal, though, keep in mind: a primary moral defense, and the necessary constitutional defense, for voter ID laws is that they will be both free and easy to obtain. A federal judge recently outlined just that in a ruling that overturned the voter ID law in Texas. In a section meant to "emphasize the narrowness" of the Texas decision, the opinion notes provisions that might help such a law achieve preclearance under section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
To the contrary, under our reasoning today, such laws might well be precleared if they ensure (1) that all prospective voters can easily obtain free photo ID, and (2) that any underlying documents required to obtain that ID are truly free of charge.
By offering supposedly free IDs, and taking steps that should make it easier to get one, Tennessee would seem to have met that threshold. And yet, read on.
Libby Miller carried with her a Knoxville Transportation Authority photo ID obtained through the Sertoma Center, which she frequently visits. Her mother said Libby does odd jobs, such as watering plants and washing toys. While she's able to do many things, Libby is not able to live independently, Vi Miller said.
The card had proved adequate for Libby Miller to go through airport security on a plane trip with her parents to visit a brother in New Jersey, Vi Miller said. But it was not adequate for voting.
The state law, which took effect Jan. 1, specifies that a voter's photo ID must be issued by the state or federal government. Cards issued by an arm of city government are not accepted.
Determined that Libby Miller would be able to vote in the November election, Libby, her mother and her father — D.M. Miller, a retired educator who was a school principal for many years — gathered what they thought were the necessary documents about three weeks ago and went to a state driver's license center where ID cards are issued, Vi Miller said.
When Libby's turn came up after an hourlong wait, they were told the card would cost $17.50, Vi Miller said. The attendant looked at the birth certificate copy they had brought, noted it was not certified and said it was unacceptable. They were also told the Social Security documents they had were not adequate.
"We have been on a wild-goose chase," Vi Miller said.
Humphrey goes on to report that the Millers have since paid $13 to get a certified copy of Libby's birth certificate and that Vi Miller wrote a letter to state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, who passed the story up to Secretary of State Tre Hargett. Humphrey also quotes Safety Department spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals, who explains that photo IDs are only free for people who need them to vote. Clerks are apparently supposed to ask what the individual needs the ID for — a fail-proof system if we've ever heard one — and then proceed accordingly. When they catch a mistake, she says, they refund the money.
And so it seems that Libby Miller's voter ID troubles will be resolved. But how many people like her have been turned away, and decided somewhere along the wild-goose chase that the whole ordeal was too much trouble? How many people were met with a clerk who forgot to ask why they needed the ID, and ended up deciding it wasn't worth the $17.50? Perhaps worse, how many people were met with such a clerk, and paid the $17.50, thinking that must just be the cost of voting in America?
We don't know. According to state officials, as reported by Humphrey and others, 284 people statewide cast provisional ballots because they came to the polls without a proper ID, 115 of which were counted when the voters later produced valid ID. But that doesn't answer any of the above questions.
What we do know is that in-person voter fraud, the primary reason given for the 100 years' worth of voting restrictions passed in the last two, is virtually non-existent. In Tennessee, make that actually non-existent. And, as Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum pointed out this weekend, that much at least should be noted every time voter ID comes up.