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Tennessee appeals court upholds voter ID law, says is constitutional

By Tim Ghianni

NASHVILLE (Reuters) - A Tennessee appeals court ruled on Thursday that a state requirement that voters have photo identification is constitutional but that the Memphis library cards at the heart of a challenge to the law were acceptable at polling places.

The Tennessee Secretary of State plans to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, a move that will freeze the appeal court ruling until the high court takes action, according to Blake Fontenay, a spokesman for the Secretary of State.

"This is like changing the rules at halftime of a football game," Fontenay said, explaining the quick reaction to Thursday's ruling, which came as early voting in the November 6 general election was already underway.

"I wouldn't lose sight of the part of the ruling that we are very pleased with that upholds the constitutionality of the law," he added.

The issue of voter ID in Tennessee is just the latest episode in a legal tug of war over photo-identification requirements in the past two years.

Republican governors and state lawmakers across the country say voter ID requirements are necessary to deter fraud, although examples of in-person voter impersonation are rare. Democrats argue the laws are intended to depress turnout among groups that support them.

"Demanding people bring a picture ID card ... is a constitutional impediment," Nashville attorney George Barrett, who challenged the constitutionality of the law, said after a court hearing last month that paved the way for the appellate ruling.

Of the appellate court's decision, Barrett said on Thursday, "We won half of it, and we lost half of it."

He called the ruling a victory for the city of Memphis, but also said "we are considering our options now."

He too may take his cause to the state Supreme Court. "We've got 30 days to decide that. We haven't given up the fight on the unconstitutionality of the statute," he said.

Barrett also said he interprets the court's Thursday ruling to say that it applies statewide and not just to Memphis.

"It makes many more places available for people to get photo IDs other than driver's license issuing stations," he said.

"Less than half of the counties in the state of Tennessee have driver's license issuing stations but every county has a library," Barrett said.

(Editing by Mary Slosson)

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