Chief Justice Gary R. Wade wrote that, although instances of people impersonating voters at the polls have not been documented in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a 2011 law requiring photo identification at the polls, ruling that lawmakers had the authority to take steps to guard against fraud.
The court ruled unanimously Thursday against the City of Memphis and two voters in Shelby County who had argued the ID requirement placed an unfair burden on the poor, elderly and others who lack driver's licenses.
Chief Justice Gary R. Wade wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court and many other state courts have upheld similar voter ID requirements. He also said that, while instances of people impersonating voters at the polls have not been documented in Tennessee, such cases have occurred elsewhere.
"Protection of the integrity of the election process empowers the state to enact laws to prevent voter fraud before it occurs," Wade said. "It is within the authority of the General Assembly to guard against the risk of such fraud in this state, so long as it does not do so in an impermissibly intrusive fashion."
Secretary of State Tre Hargett said the unanimous ruling shows the photo ID requirement did not harm voters, despite complaints from a small group of Tennesseans.
"The unanimous decision emphasizes just how well the law was written," he said. "We felt very strongly all along that the law would be found constitutional. I'm pleased but not surprised."
George Barrett, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was disappointed and would consult his clients before making a decision on any other potential steps.
The suit, City of Memphis v. Hargett, arose last year when officials in Memphis began issuing library cards with pictures on them to voters for use at the polls. That prompted Mark Goins, the state coordinator of elections, to determine that library cards were not valid because they had not been issued by a state or federal agency.
Nevertheless, two Shelby County residents, Daphne Turner-Golden and Sullistine Bell, presented the cards when they went to vote in the August 2012 primary. Both women were turned away by poll workers.
After a federal court initially ruled against Turner-Golden, she, Bell and the City of Memphis filed suit in Davidson County, arguing that the photo ID law imposed too high a burden on those who did not have a state or federal ID already and live far away from driver service centers, where cards could be issued.
Opponents of the law also argued voter fraud is more likely to be committed by poll workers, by stuffing ballot boxes or other techniques, than individuals trying to fool election officials by claiming to be someone else.
Their arguments were rejected in Chancery Court. The Court of Appeals largely agreed, though it ruled library cards should be allowable.
Supreme Court justices ruled 4-0, with Justice William C. Koch Jr. concurring, that the photo ID law was not an undue burden. They noted that voters who lack ID cards can get one free of charge or can file an affidavit at the polls stating they were too poor to get one. Older voters also can obtain an absentee ballot, and those who forgot to bring an ID can vote provisionally.
The court set aside the question of whether library cards should be allowed, noting that the state legislature passed a law specifically banning them last spring.
Hargett said the photo ID law is meant to be "one more tool in the toolbox" toward preventing fraud. He said the law is one of several steps his office has taken, placing it alongside efforts to prevent disenfranchised felons from voting, purges of deceased voters from rolls and checks of voter records to ensure Tennesseans do not also cast ballots in other states.
"We've worked very diligently to make sure only eligible voters are on the rolls," he said.
Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @chassisk.