Educate All Students: Larry Miller's Blog

October 7, 2011

96-Year-Old Black Woman Denied Right to Vote in Tennessee

Thursday, October 6 2011, 2:06 PM EST Tags: 2012 campaign, Voter ID, Voting

96 Year Old Black Woman Denied Vote in Tennessee

http://timesfreepress.com/news/2011/oct/05/marriage-certificate-required-bureaucrat-tells/

Dorothy Cooper is a 96-year-old black woman who lives in Chattanooga,Tennessee. She was recently denied a voter identification card because she didn’t have her marriage certificate available — the same card that’s required by the state to vote. This coming election may be the first one she misses in 50 years.

In February, all 20 Republicans and one Democrat in the state senate passed a measure requiring Tennessee voters show a driver’s licenses or other government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot. Democrats countered that the bill’s provisions would make it tougher to many of the 500,000 adult Tennesseans — many of them poor, elderly or handicapped — who have no state driver’s license.

And this is exactly what’s happening to Cooper, Times Free Press reports:

Cooper slipped a rent receipt, a copy of her lease, her voter registration card and her birth certificate into a Manila envelope. Typewritten on the birth certificate was her maiden name, Dorothy Alexander.

“But I didn’t have my marriage certificate,” Cooper said Tuesday afternoon, and that was the reason the clerk said she was denied a free voter ID at the Cherokee Boulevard Driver Service Center.

“I don’t know what difference it makes,” Cooper said.

“In this case, since Ms. Cooper’s birth certificate (her primary proof of identity) and voter registration card were two different names, the examiner was unable to provide the free ID,” Tennessee Department of Safety spokeswoman Dalya Qualls told the Free Press. She went on to add the examiner should have provided additional forms to Cooper.

State Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, says Cooper’s case is an example of how the law “‘erects barriers’ for the elderly and poor people — a disproportionate number of whom are minorities,” she told the Times Free Press.

Tennessee is just one of an array of state governments across the country that have enacted new laws that make it harder for voters of traditionally Democratic demographics to register to vote. A report released earlier this week found these new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.

The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012 . That’s 63 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

Dorothy Cooper is 96 but she can remember only one election when she’s been eligible to vote but hasn’t.

The retired domestic worker was born in a small North Georgia town before women had the right to vote. She began casting ballots in her 20s after moving to Chattanooga for work. She missed voting for John F. Kennedy in 1960 because a move to Nashville prevented her from registering in time.

So when she learned last month at a community meeting that under a new state law she’d need a photo ID to vote next year, she talked with a volunteer about how to get to a state Driver Service Center to get her free ID. But when she got there Monday with an envelope full of documents, a clerk denied her request.

That morning, Cooper slipped a rent receipt, a copy of her lease, her voter registration card and her birth certificate into a Manila envelope. Typewritten on the birth certificate was her maiden name, Dorothy Alexander.

“But I didn’t have my marriage certificate,” Cooper said Tuesday afternoon, and that was the reason the clerk said she was denied a free voter ID at the Cherokee Boulevard Driver Service Center.

“I don’t know what difference it makes,” Cooper said.

Cooper visited the state driver service center with Charline Kilpatrick, who has been working with residents to get free photo IDs. After the clerk denied Cooper’s request, Kilpatrick called a state worker, explained what happened and asked if Cooper needed to return with a copy of the marriage certificate.

“The lady laughed,” Kilpatrick said. “She said she’s never heard of all that.”

Tennessee Department of Safety spokeswoman Dalya Qualls said in a Tuesday email that Cooper’s situation, though unique, could have been handled differently.

“It is department policy that in order to get a photo ID, a citizen must provide documentation that links their name to the documentation that links their name to the document they are using as primary proof of identity,” Qualls said. “In this case, since Ms. Cooper’s birth certificate (her primary proof of identity) and voter registration card were two different names, the examiner was unable to provide the free ID.”

Despite that, Qualls said, “the examiner should have taken extra steps to determine alternative forms of documentation for Ms. Cooper.”Kilpatrick has had to call the state at least twice after taking someone to get a photo ID or have a photo added to the driver’s license. State law allows anyone 60 or older to have their picture removed from their license.

The state has been working diligently to make the process easy for residents, Qualls said.

POLL-ITICS?

State Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, said Tuesday that Cooper’s case is an example of how the law “erects barriers” for the elderly and poor people — a disproportionate number of whom are minorities.”What you do, you suppress the vote,” Brown said. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.”

The General Assembly passed the photo ID law earlier this year, with lawmakers saying it was needed to prevent voter fraud. The legislature allocated $438,000 to provide free photo IDs for registered voters who don’t have a qualified ID.

“It makes no sense in these economic times that we are shifting our time and resources to this,” Brown said.

In Nashville on Tuesday afternoon, a coalition of organizations announced an effort to repeal the law. Groups such as the ACLU of Tennessee, various chapters of the NAACP, the AFL-CIO and Tennessee Citizen Action announced a petition drive and get-out-the-vote effort.

“This is a nonpartisan issue. It’s a fair voting issue,” said Mary Mancini, executive director of Citizen Action, in a phone interview. “It’s all about the legislators seeing that the people of Tennessee don’t want this law.”

VOTING ALL THESE YEARS

Cooper isn’t worried about the politics of the law.

“I hadn’t thought about it,” she said when asked about why legislators passed the bill.

She just wants to be able to vote.

In her decades of going to the polls, “I never had any problems,” she said, not even before the Voting Rights Act passed in the 1960s.

In her 50-plus years working for the same family, she never learned to drive so she never needed a license. She retired in 1993 and returned to Chattanooga from Nashville.Now, on occasion, one of her bank’s tellers or a grocery store clerk will ask for photo ID when she writes or cashes a check, Cooper said.

“I’ve been banking at SunTrust for a long time,” she said. “Sometimes they’ll say, well, do you have a Social Security card?”

And she shows it to them. She also has a photo ID issued by the Chattanooga Police Department to all seniors who live in the Boynton Terrace public housing complex, but that won’t qualify for voting.

Cooper’s younger sister, now 91, lives in a nursing home across town. Nursing home residents and assisted living residents are exempt from the new photo ID requirement.But Cooper, who barely needs a walker, is not.

Though she’s still able to walk around her apartment without assistance and “takes daily exercise” at a community center next door, Cooper never had any children — although she has outlived two husbands — and relies on others for transportation.

The law “is a problem if you don’t have a way of getting around,” she said. “I’ve been voting all these years.”

After Cooper was denied a photo ID Monday, Kilpatrick contacted Hamilton County’s Administrator of Elections Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, who recommended that Cooper vote with an absentee ballot rather than having to stand in line with her walker again at the state center.

Absentee ballots don’t require photo ID, and the new state law was crafted to allow that exception. A U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a similar Indiana statute cited the absentee ballot exception as one of the reasons the Indiana law didn’t infringe on constitutional voting rights.

Still, Cooper said she will miss the practice of going to the voting precinct located in the building next door to hers.

“We always come here to vote,” she said, nodding toward a door where voting machines are set up on election day. “The people who run the polls know everybody here.”

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