Tennessee was one of approximately 40 states with laws under which drivers could lose their licenses if they were too poor to pay court costs or traffic fines. Judge Aleta Trauger struck down Tennessee’s law earlier this week, noting in her ruling:
“The damage that the lack of a driver’s license does to one’s employment prospects is just the beginning. Being unable to drive is the equivalent of a recurring tax or penalty on engaging in the wholly lawful ordinary activities of life—a tax or penalty that someone who committed the same traffic violation, but was able to pay her initial traffic debt, would never be obligated to pay.”
“As a general proposition, the cities, towns, and communities of Tennessee are pervasively structured around the use of motor vehicles. Anyone who doubts that premise is welcome to attempt to run a day’s worth of errands in a rural Tennessee county with no car and very little money… Nashville is a city where motor vehicle travel is, for the vast majority of the population, an essential part of ordinary life, particularly for anyone seeking to maintain or build economic self-sufficiency. All of these facts, together, leave very little room for doubt regarding the plaintiffs’ assertion that an indigent person who loses her driver’s license is only going to be made less likely to be able to meet the ordinary expenses of life, let alone pay hundreds of dollars in traffic debt.”
This ruling could have an impact on voter turnout in the midterm elections, where Tennessee has an open U.S. Senate race and an open governor’s race on the ballot. According to the Secretary of State’s office, “all voters must present a federal or Tennessee state ID,” which includes driver’s licenses. According to the New York Times, more than 100,000 Tennesseeans could get their licenses reinstated. Judge Trauger is also presiding over a separate lawsuit arguing that unpaid traffic fines have cost almost 250,000 Tennessee residents their licenses. The Times article also notes:
According to evidence presented in the Tennessee case, 93.4 percent of workers who reside in the state drive to work.
The state revoked 146,211 driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debts between July 2012 and June 2016. Only about 7 percent of those people were able to get their licenses reinstated in that same period.
Tennessee Democratic legislators had previously introduced bills on this subject. A state Democratic Party official said, “We believe this is a major positive development because being poor is not a crime, and this is a huge burden lifted from many Tennesseans. Not having a valid photo ID is also a barrier to voting, so this could potentially have a positive impact on voter turnout among this group.”
The ruling could create a voter demographic that neither political party had previously accounted for, which could make the difference in a close race. For comparison, during the last open Senate race in a mid-term election cycle in 2006, Bob Corker was elected to his first term in office by a margin of almost 50,000 votes.