Two bills before the Tennessee General Assembly would chip away, ever so slightly, at the state’s voter ID laws, making it easier for students to vote.

Those bills wouldn’t get rid of the photo ID requirement, but they would allow voters to prove their eligibility with their student IDs.

Democrats from Nashville and Memphis are carrying the bills; they say they want to remove unnecessary barriers and make democracy more accessible. Republicans say the proposals could risk the security and accuracy of elections.

“We have horrible voter turnout,” said Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, who’s sponsoring one of them. “It’s not even a partisan issue. Voting shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville. (Photo: Submitted)
Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville. (Photo: Submitted)

Campbell’s bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, doesn’t apply to private institutions—just public ones. The other bill, sponsored by Sen. Sara Kyle D-Memphis, and Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, applies to any accredited postsecondary institution. Neither specifies that the person using the university-issued ID has to be a current student.  Both require the student IDs to have a photo.

Whereas Kyle’s bill is limited to student IDs, Campbell’s does a few other notable things that would make voting easier.

First, it allows voters to vote absentee by mail for any reason. Voters are currently required to cast their ballots in person unless they meet one of the state’s valid reasons to vote by mail. And according to the bill summary online, it also allows first-time voters to vote by mail; those voters are currently required to vote in person.

Campbell’s and Clemmons’ bill is scheduled for a hearing in a House subcommittee March 3. It’s not yet scheduled for a hearing in the Senate. Kyle’s and Beck’s bill has been assigned to committees but hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing.

Register to vote using this link. Learn more about absentee voting here and voter ID requirements here.

“A solution in search of a problem”

Research does not show that voter ID requirements improve election security.

Voter fraud is “vanishingly rare,” according to a 2017 fact sheet published by the American Civil Liberties Union. It stated that between 2000 and the publication of the fact sheet, there were only 31 cases of fraud that could have been prevented by ID requirements. Over a billion—with a B—ballots were cast in the same time period.

The ACLU’s conclusion: voter ID requirements are discriminatory, a waste of tax dollars and, ultimately, “a solution in search of a problem.”

ID requirements reduce turnout, too. The nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office found that Tennessee’s ID requirements reduced turnout in the 2012 elections by 2.2-3.2%.

Furthermore, the Brennan Center for Justice found in 2006 that 11% of Americans lack a photo ID. That number is higher for Black people (25%), seniors (18%) and the poor (15%).

“Getting an ID can be a gigantic pain in the neck,” said Brandon Puttbrese, the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus press secretary. “Photo IDs are not necessary to safeguard an election.”

Mixed history

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said it’s clear the state’s voter ID laws are intended to suppress the vote.

“Tennessee has a mixed history when it comes to voting rights,” Weinberg said in an interview.

She noted that a century ago, Tennessee gave the crucial vote that allowed the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution to pass, giving women the right to vote. Much of the activism of the Civil Rights Movement took place in Tennessee, and in 1965, both of the state’s U.S. senators supported the Voting Rights Act.

“Today it’s a lot different,” Weinberg said.

She said zealous voter suppression became much more common after the election of the first Black president.

“We have to recognize that the election of President Obama unfortunately mobilized a bunch of state legislators to pass laws to suppress the right to vote in Tennessee,” she said. “The goal should be to expand access to the ballot box, not shut it down.”

“I don’t think that what we have is unreasonable”

It’s unlikely that either student ID bill will pass.

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, who chairs the committee where the bills will be considered, opposes student IDs being a valid document for voting.

State Sen. Richard Briggs (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Richard Briggs (Official photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“They just don’t have the same safeguards,” he said in an interview.

He said there are lots of easy-enough ways to register to vote, but also that voters must exercise some personal responsibility and take the initiative to register. He said there’s a tradeoff between ease and accuracy, and that student IDs are too easy to fake.

“I don’t think that what we have is unreasonable,” he said. “I’m pretty happy keeping it the way we have it right now.”

Campbell isn’t buying the election-security argument.

“It’s all manufactured,” she said. “Arguments that it’s unsafe are disingenuous.”

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, likewise, doesn’t agree that access comes at the expense of accuracy; he said Democrats want to expand democracy while maintaining secure elections.

“We’re actually for both of those things,” said Yarbro, who’s sponsoring a handful of voting bills, including one to end partisan gerrymandering.

“All of us should believe in the basics of democracy more than we believe in our party,” Yarbro continued. “So if there is a Democrat out there who is against rules that actually make sure that voting is secure, then I would oppose them too. To me, this is about making sure that people are in charge, and not parties.”

Briggs did seek to distance himself from some of the most extreme proposals from his Republican colleagues.

“Some of them, quite frankly, I’m embarrassed about,” he said.

He opposed Sen. Janice Bowling’s, R-Tullahoma,  bill to abolish early voting, referring to her as “a disgruntled Trumper.” Her bill was withdrawn last week. Likewise, he said Rep. Susan Lynn’s, R-Mount Juliet,  fingerprinting bill was “just way, way too onerous.”

And he said he would seek to expand “voting centers,” where you can go to vote regardless of the precinct you live in.

Student perspective

Among students—Democratic students, at least—voter fraud is a joke.

Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, said student ID cards aren’t as reliable as other types of identification and are easier to fake in order to vote. Amanda Taylor, president of the University of Tennessee College Democrats, said students don’t even have time for voter fraud.

Amanda Taylor, president of the University of Tennessee College Democrats, said she knows a few people who would benefit, and she’s confident that administrators would ensure accurate elections.

The UT College Republicans didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Taylor joked that she’d been “super bogged down with homework and committing voter fraud in my spare time.”

“We believe in free and fair elections,” she said. “Frankly, students don’t have the time to think about voter fraud.”