Does Tennessee's photo-ID voting law test the commitment of voters? 

Face the Ballot

Face the Ballot

Just before 8 a.m. on the cold, gray first Saturday of October, Robert Riches was second in line at the door of the Driver Service Center on Centennial Boulevard. Asked why an 88-year-old man would make a haul across town on a blustery weekend morning — a day made for late sleeping — he held up his photo-less driver's license and smiled.

Under newly enacted state law, anyone who wants to vote in Tennessee this year needs a state-issued photo ID. They can get one, for free, during normal weekday hours at any of the state's 51 driver service centers. But there's a reason "the DMV" is a nearly universal metaphor for anything slow and painful. Getting in and out of perhaps the most notorious intersection of citizenry and government in a lunch break is a daunting task.

So the state announced last month that it would open eight Driver Service Centers across the state for special Saturday hours — on the first Saturday of October and November — with the sole purpose of issuing photo IDs. And here stood Robert Riches with 10 other people, all waiting to reaffirm their right to vote.

While Tennessee law does not require people over the age of 60 to have a photo on their driver's license, the state's new voter ID law does. A bill sponsored by Democrats in the state legislature earlier this year would have created an exemption for those citizens, but it was quickly put down by the Republican majority. And so, despite having had the opportunity to vote in every presidential election since Dwight D. Eisenhower faced Adlai Stevenson in 1952, that bare spot on his license would have kept Riches from voting this year.

After encountering long lines during the week at a Franklin service center, Riches said, he was told by members of the staff there — and by reports on television — about the special Saturday hours. (Like many people the Scene spoke to, he didn't say which way he planned to vote.) Thanks to the relative lack of weekend traffic, he said it didn't take him too long to drive from his home on Murfreesboro Road to the service center on Centennial Boulevard, northwest of the city — a 20-to-30-mile trip.

And the trek paid off. No more than 20 minutes after the center opened, Riches headed back out the door with a photo on his ID. And by 8:45, the center was empty again, save for the staff and a reporter lurking in the corner.

According to the Tennessee Department of Safety, the department has issued 23,372 photo IDs for voting purposes statewide since July 1, 2011. Of those, 21,818 were cases in which a non-photo driver's license was converted into one with a photo. State officials told the Scene they had expected the centers to be busier for Saturday hours. But in all, just 191 photo IDs were issued at the eight driver service centers opened for special hours on Oct. 6.

"We haven't had a huge response to being open on Saturdays," says Lori Bullard, Tennessee assistant commissioner of driver services, speaking to the Scene the following week. "I'm not sure if the word just didn't get out or if people are just doing it during the week, I'm not real sure. We kind of thought there might be a higher rate."

The next weekend hours come Nov. 3, just three days before Election Day, and officials say they're preparing for a last-minute rush.

At the Davidson County center, 38 people received a photo ID for voting purposes, making it the third-busiest location in the state that Saturday. They varied in age and race, and many were senior citizens accompanied by a friend or family member. For the less committed, the new law could be a handy excuse to skip the hassle of going to the polls. But many more showed up only to find out they already had what they needed. Staff members at the center said it's a common occurrence.

"I do think there's a lot of confusion," Bullard says. "Because I think, in people's minds, they think that there is a voter ID card that they have to have in order to vote. And that's not the case. People refer to it as a voter ID, but really all you have to have is a photo ID."

Indeed, the term "voter ID" seems to cause more confusion the more it catches on. Bullard says things have been going smoothly, and there did not appear to be any difficulties for those who came to get a photo ID at the Centennial Boulevard location Oct. 6. But as Bullard says, there's a growing mistaken belief that without some kind of specific new voter ID card, people won't be allowed to vote.

That was in evidence at the Davidson County station. Throughout the day Saturday, men and women of various ages and races approached the counter and asked specifically for a "voter ID." But when asked whether they already had a photo ID issued by the state or federal government — and the staff was particularly friendly and helpful on this point — many answered yes. Some, as Bullard speculated, had come under the impression that they needed a separate card in order to vote.

Others thought the photo ID they did have — an expired driver's license, for instance, or one issued by another state — would not be adequate. In fact, any state-issued driver's license, regardless of whether it is expired or what state issued it, is acceptable as long as it has a photo. But even for those who understand exactly what they need in order to vote, getting one can be difficult.

Just before 4 p.m., when the center would close until Monday, Claudette Pittman rushed through the doors alongside 66-year-old Albert Hatcher. Pittman, a certified nurse, said she had driven to Antioch to pick up Hatcher, a family friend, and get him to the center. Like Riches, he had a license without a photo. Without Pittman, he might not have gotten one before November.

"There are so many elderly people that want to vote, that cannot come to do what I just got him to do," she said.

Pittman works at a nursing home, where she said many residents do not have photo IDs. They may actually be fine. Among those who are exempt from the photo ID requirement are "voters who are residents of a licensed nursing home or assisted living center and who vote at the facility." Pittman said she would be talking to the director of the facility she works at "first thing Monday morning" to make sure residents there would be able to vote. Other than that, she said, she'll probably be making more trips to the service center.

"I'm going to find some more Mr. Alberts," she said.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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