"Well, I think we told you so."
That's how state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh responded to yet more evidence that voter ID laws like Tennessee's, and others around the country, solve a problem that doesn't exist. At a recent press conference, Fitzhugh and House Democratic Caucus chairman Mike Turner discussed concerns arising from this month's primary elections — including that some voters received incorrect ballots, while others with proper identification weren't allowed to vote.
Just two days earlier, the Carnegie-Knight Initiative's investigative reporting project News21 released a comprehensive study of American election fraud since 2000. The study found that in-person voter fraud — the type that voter ID laws were ostensibly created to stop — is "virtually nonexistent." Out of 14 cases of reported fraud in Tennessee since 2000, the study said, none involved in-person voter impersonation, and thus would not have been stopped by the photo ID requirement.
Those findings fuel suspicion that the motivation for such laws has less to do with rampant fraud and more to do with the laws' probable effect: lower turnout in demographics that are more likely to vote Democratic but less likely to have a valid photo ID. Moreover, the nationwide push for voter ID laws — 62 laws, proposed in 37 states in the past two legislative sessions, according to the News21 report — was fueled in large part by conservative legislation-factory the American Legislative Exchange Council.
While Tennessee is offering free photo IDs at Driver Service Centers across the state, Republicans were decidedly unreceptive to legislative proposals that might have decreased the law's potentially negative impact on voter turnout.
State Democrats offered several proposals last session that would have modified the law toward that end. One bill, for instance, would have created an exemption for people over age 60, who are not required by state law to have a photo on their driver's license. Those bills were shut down by the majority, as was another that would have repealed the law.
Turner said that while the issue would continue to be important to Democrats, he's not expecting a Republican turnaround on voter ID.
"They've got too much invested in that to come up and say, 'We made a mistake,' " he said. "They've got that around their neck, whether they want it there or not. They've got to defend it."
Practically speaking, though, Democrats' views on requirements at the polls are irrelevant. Their bill to repeal the voter ID law only made it out of subcommittee last session because Republicans failed to assemble enough members at that day's meeting. To Turner's point, lacking evidence of widespread voter fraud has not generally moved Republicans, here or elsewhere, to concede that the law might be a solution without a problem, much less to admit to any cynical motives. (There are loose lips among them, though: In June, Pennsylvania state House GOP leader Mike Turzai said his state's voter ID law was "gonna allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.")
In an emailed statement to the Scene, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick defended the law and the majority's efforts to ensure "the integrity of election results."
"Under the guidance of the Secretary of State, thousands of deceased and ineligible felons have been removed from the voter rolls since 2009," he said. "At the same time, we passed a photo ID requirement to ensure only the actual voter can receive his or her ballot — and not someone else. Additionally, we have made it easier to detect and remove non-citizens who are on the voter rolls."
A GOP spokesman pointed to voter fraud investigations in North Carolina, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., by political prankster and provocateur James O'Keefe's Project Veritas, as evidence such laws are necessary.
But if Republicans sincerely wish to stamp out voter fraud, one would expect to see laws addressing absentee ballots, where voter fraud is more likely (albeit still infrequent). On that front, McCormick said, further action will be on an as-needed basis.
"With a strong majority of Tennesseans consistently telling us to protect their votes, there may very well be some additional action that needs to take place," McCormick said. "The elections office has done an admirable job keeping us informed about potential issues, and we'll act on it if we need to."
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