Tennessee students lose voter ID challenge

A US district court in Tennessee dismissed a challenge to the state’s voter ID law yesterday, ruling that the state is not imposing an undue or discriminatory burden on students by failing to include student and out-of-state IDs in its list of acceptable forms of voter ID.

From Courthouse News:

 The Nashville Student Organizing Committee and nine students sued Tennessee election officials in March, arguing the state’s voter ID law “intentionally discriminates against out-of-state college and university students, and has the purpose and effect of denying and abridging the right to vote on account of age” because it excludes student IDs and out-of-state IDs at the polls.

“Out-of-state students with other states’ driver’s licenses or ID cards cannot readily comply with the voter ID law and must either forego voting, vote absentee in their prior state, or undergo the arduous process of applying for an identification license at a driver service center,” the lawsuit claimed. “The voter ID law clearly favors in-state student voters over out-of-state student voters.”

It also favors non-students over students, more generally. Under Tennessee’s voter ID law, an expired gun permit is considered to be an acceptable way to prove one’s identity at the polls, but a valid Virginia drivers license is not. Student IDs are specifically excluded from the list, while faculty IDs from state universities are valid. Given that the sole goal of a voter ID law — according to the state’s own website — is to prove that the voter is who they say they are, this doesn’t make any sense. But since our right to vote is negative, not affirmative, it doesn’t have to. States are free to regulate (read: restrict) the right to vote as they see fit, so long as plaintiffs can’t prove discriminatory intent against a protected demographic.

And while students do have a constitutional right to vote wherever they consider to be home, Congress has never specifically prohibited states from passing legislation that has the effect of making it harder for students to vote.

This rationale led the court to dismiss the ruling. As US District Judge Aleta Trauger wrote (emphasis in the original):

Can't Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

Can’t Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

Under the Tennessee voter ID law, everyone is required to obtain some form of acceptable photo identification in order to vote. Students, like everyone else, can select among a state-issued driver license, a United States passport, or the free, state-issued non-driver identification card. The Tennessee voter ID law merely does not allow students to use the student identification cards they already have. Admittedly, allowing students to use these cards would make it easier for them to vote, but it does not automatically follow that not allowing them to use their student identification cards imposes a severe burden or otherwise abridges their right to vote.

While it may be true that it doesn’t automatically follow that because Tennessee doesn’t let out-of-state students use their existing proof of identification in order to vote, their ballot access is being unfairly restricted, you don’t have to strain too hard to come to that conclusion. While it’s technically true that out-of-state students in Tennessee still have access to the ballot in Tennessee, since when do students interact with their local Department of Safety and Homeland Security, or their local drivers license office for that matter? Just because the state will provide an ID to anyone who invests the time and resources to obtain one doesn’t mean that they’ve maintained equal access to the ballot, especially when one group of voters — in this case, out-of-state students — is more likely to need to obtain the ID.

Trauger also held that the Tennessee’s decision to accept faculty IDs while rejecting student IDs was valid, citing concerns over fake IDs and voter fraud, as well as the differing relationship the state has with faculty as opposed to students. However, again, since we don’t have an affirmative right to vote, Tennessee didn’t have to provide any actual proof that student IDs are more likely to be faked than drivers licenses, or that voter impersonation fraud is an actual problem in the state that their ID requirement would solve. As long as the language in the law remained neutral, and as long as the state maintained a path by which students could — with a bit of extra and unquantifiable effort — obtain a state-issued ID, the students didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.

All this is to say that it’s very hard to look at Tennessee’s law and conclude that it isn’t designed to reduce the number of out-of-state students voting in its elections, but the nature and extent of our voting rights make it very difficult to challenge such a law in court.

Which is why we need a Voting Rights Amendment.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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