Tennessee Appeals Court Upholds Most Of Voter ID Law, Saying Burden Is Not ‘Impossible Or Oppressive’

A Tennessee appeals court upheld the state’s voter ID law Thursday, with the caveat that the state must accept Memphis library identification cards.

In a unanimous ruling, the state’s intermediate court held that the photo ID requirement did not impose burdens akin to a poll tax, and that the state’s justification for the law — alleged voter fraud — was a “compelling interest,” even though instances of in-person voter fraud are exceedingly rare.

Not surprisingly, the court held that the state was not required to show any evidence of the elusive voter fraud. This was a proposition set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, a 2008 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court abdicated its responsibility to strike down laws like this one that threaten ballot access. What’s more, the Tennessee Court of Appeals arguably went beyond the scope of the Crawford decision in justifying its law, citing a 1891 Tennessee decision:

As the burden of having to acquire a photographic identification card is not substantial, neither does it rise to the level of imposing an “impossible or oppressive” condition on voting, and therefore the legislation requiring it is not void.

Calling a prerequisite to voting acceptable if it is not “impossible or oppressive” suggests that voting is more of a privilege than a right. Studies have shown that as many as 11 percent of Americans do not have a photo ID, and that those impacted by these laws are disproportionately minorities, the elderly and the poor.

Countless anecdotes in Tennessee and elsewhere show that obtaining a photo ID can be onerous even for those who take the time and expense to make an attempt. In Tennessee, senior citizens encountered obstacles because they never had a birth certificate, didn’t have a marriage license, wasn’t able to stand in line at the DMV, or told to pay an $8 fee to obtain what was supposed to be a free photo ID. Several of these problems may have been ones of implementation, but they highlight the risks of photo ID requirements that caused courts in Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wisconsin to at least temporarily block these laws.

Yesterday’s Tennessee ruling appears to be a clear win for the state, but the Tennessee Secretary of State said he plans to appeal the order requiring the court to accept library IDs, staying that aspect of the ruling in the interim. The court had found that the state was improperly excluding library-issued cards because the library is a branch of the state.