By State Rep. Brenda Gilmore
NASHVILLE, TN — Recently I have joined with my fellow Democrats: U.S. Congressman Jim Cooper and the members of the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus, as well as, my Republican colleague State Senator Steve Dickerson in a statewide push to encourage voter registration and turnout. The initiative, titled Project Register, is asking more than 70 Tennessee organizations representing more than 125,000 employees to remind their workers twice a year that they can now register to vote online and make voter registration a part of their new employee processing.
The reason for this push speaks for itself: Tennessee is ranked 40th in voter registration and 50th in voter turnout and is home to more than 838,000 adults who are not registered to vote.
In some recent reports, this project has come under fire from voter ID supporters who claim new ID laws do not negatively affect turnout rates; in spite of the fact that a quick Google search will show a preponderance of studies to the contrary. These critics point out statistics that highlight the dramatic increase in turnout between the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 presidential elections while ignoring the fact that there is always a significant increase in voters between midterm and presidential election years.
Furthermore, looking at voter ID requirements and their impact on overall voter turnout rates is misleading and in many ways serves to disguise the way they are specifically targeted toward marginalized and minority populations. Even the Supreme Court struck down voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina, ruling that the state’s ID law was intentionally designed to stop African-Americans from voting (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/15/528457693/supreme-court-declines-republican-bid-to-revive-north-carolina-voter-id-law).
According to U.S. Census Bureau data on presidential elections from 2000 through 2016, voter turnout for registered white voters in Tennessee has been relatively consistent, but among black voters over the same time period there has been more variation. Tennessee passed its stricter voter ID law in 2011, requiring residents to present a valid government photo ID when they show up to vote. In the subsequent election years, voter turnout has decreased among black registered voters. The U.S. Government Accountability Office analyzed the decrease in voter turnout in Kansas and Tennessee between 2008 and 2012. The GAO study (https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-634) found that the decrease was “attributable to changes in those two states’ voter ID requirements.“
There is no reliable poll to account for the number of people that choose not to vote. However, time and again it has been proven that the new voter ID laws passed in this country do, in fact, limit turnout. This isn’t simply my opinion, there are numerous studies that support this finding. One of the most compelling studies was conducted by the Washington Post: “Do voter identification laws suppress minority voting? Yes. We did the research. (2/15/17) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/02/15/do-voter-identification-laws-sauppress-minority-voting-yes-we-did-the-research/?utm_term=.98a2ab43af79” .
Scholars have proven that racial and ethnic minorities have less access to photo IDs and their research shows no evidence of the kind of widespread voter fraud that voter ID laws are supposed to protect against. The study goes on to prove that not only is there lower turnout among minorities in states with voter ID laws, but there are also consequences along party and ideological lines. The article states:
“All else equal, when strict ID laws are instituted, the turnout gap between Republicans and Democrats in primary contests more than doubles from 4.3 points to 9.8 points. Likewise, the turnout gap between conservative and liberal voters more than doubles from 7.7 to 20.4 points.”
When it comes to voter ID laws, we have the facts. Now it is our responsibility to take the steps to make sure all legal voters can cast their ballots without any unnecessary impediments between them and their constitutional rights. Project Register and initiatives like it can only help in this process.