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VOL. 36 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 9, 2012




House panel advances effort to repeal voter ID law

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NASHVILLE (AP) - A House panel on Wednesday advanced a Democratic proposal to repeal Tennessee's new voter ID law, though Republican leaders and state election officials expressed confidence that the measure soon will meet its demise.

The House State and Local Government Subcommittee voted 5-3 Wednesday in favor of a measure sponsored by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville.

"I hope that we start encouraging people to vote, because for the greatest democracy in the world, we have a very small number of people voting," Turner told the panel. "I think this (law) discourages people to vote."

The panel's three Democrats were joined by independent Rep. Kent Williams of Elizabethtown and Republican Rep. Bob Ramsey of Maryville in voting for the bill. All three votes against the measure came from Republicans.

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick noted that Republicans didn't have their full complement on the subc ommittee, and that unlike earlier in the day, House Speaker Beth Harwell wasn't on hand to help bolster the GOP numbers.

"The majority of our member think we did the right thing last year, and I think we we'll be able to take care of it next week in full committee - if everyone shows up," said McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins stressed that the current voter ID law remains in effect unless both chambers pass a repeal.

"Clearly it's still the law until it's not the law anymore," Goins told reporters after the vote. "So I want to make sure everyone understands that they still have to have a photo ID in August and November and until the Legislature says otherwise."

"For it to be repealed, it has a long way to go," he said. "And I don't think that's going to happen."

Turner argued during the debate that there haven't been enough convictions of voter fraud in Tennessee to require the photo ID law. The new law has done li ttle other than discourage voters, he said.

"The integrity of the ballot, I think, was there before we passed this," he said.

McCormick disagreed with only considering cases where voter fraud has been made public.

"There have been several Grateful Dead concerts where no one was arrested for smoking marijuana," McCormick said. "But that doesn't mean it wasn't going on."

The panel had earlier rejected a series of other efforts to tweak the voter ID law passed enacted last year, including efforts to exempt senior citizens and to allow students to use IDs issued by colleges.

But the Republican majority's tenuous control of the issue was exhibited on the first voter ID bill on the panel's agenda Wednesday morning, when it voted 4-3 to advance a measure that would eliminate the need for voters who don't have the proper ID to cast provisional ballots.

The favorable vote appeared to surprise Republican leaders, and absent members and Speaker Harwel l were quickly summoned to try to stop additional measures from advancing.

Harwell, who can vote in any House committee, told The Associated Press afterward that she wanted to ensure the Republican majority was able to defend the law passed last year.

"This is something that clearly we've heard from the public on - that they want to make sure we maintain the integrity of the ballot box," Harwell said.

Harwell attended most of the morning session of the committee meeting, but was not on hand for the afternoon portion.

The discussion sometimes became heated, especially after members were told an attorney general's opinion of last year declared some of their proposals unconstitutional. Democrats disagreed, and asked to hear directly from Attorney General Bob Cooper.

Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, said there was no purpose in waiting to hear from Cooper because all members should be able to refer to the opinion distributed to lawmakers last year. R ep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis said he wasn't sure whether he still had access to it, and asked Todd to provide copies.

That drew an angry retort from Todd.

"At least I know how to read," Todd said. "And I keep my stuff."

Haynes ruled Todd out of order, and the committee's legal counsel later informed the panel that she had misspoken about the attorney general's opinion, saying that her information came from other states and an oral opinion given by the attorney general.

Todd acknowledged the mistaken recollection, but declined Miller's invitation to apologize.

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