BY CHRIS MELODY FIELDS, TOVA WANG, BEN HOVLAND and JENNY FLANAGAN
Before 2011 only two states, Georgia and Indiana, had laws requiring voters to produce government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot. Seemingly overnight we have seen the rise of disenfranchising voter ID legislation masked as an attempt to prevent voter impersonation fraud. Eight additional states have passed restrictive photo identification laws, presenting voters in Alabama, Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Mississippi (by ballot initiative) with new challenges and barriers in order to vote. The reality, however, is that these laws are a costly solution in search of a problem that does not exist.
What does exist are real people who do not have current, valid, state-issued photo identification and will face challenges in obtaining such an ID. These people are: people with disabilities who are unable to drive; older Americans who were not born in a hospital and lack a birth certificate needed to obtain an ID; students who have relocated for college; and communities of color that often depend on public transportation and cannot afford to spend the extra time or money required to get an ID from the DMV. These are just a few of the examples of the categories of people most affected by photo ID laws. It is no simple matter to obtain the necessary ID—the hurdles involved can make doing so difficult, and in some cases, impossible. While the voting rights community fights back to overturn these restrictive laws, we must also actively help voters obtain the ID needed to vote in states where these unnecessary laws have passed.
With a limited amount of time to aid voters in acquiring voter ID, a new report, Got ID? Helping Americans Get Voter Identification provides an outline for how state and local organizations can stand up for democracy and help voters secure the necessary ID. The report draws lessons from programs being implemented by community groups in Colorado, Tennessee and Wisconsin and details the best strategies for these groups to develop “Got ID?” programs. In the report community organizations will receive guidance on:
- Creating a diverse, engaged coalition of local organizations to support a voter outreach program;
- Identifying and reaching eligible voters who do not have the necessary ID;
- Addressing voters’ hurdles to obtaining required ID, such as transportation to DMV offices or the costs of obtaining the necessary underlying documentation like a birth certificate;
- Advocating for legislation to make obtaining the required IDs simpler and easier, including no-cost birth certificates and extended DMV hours.
In addition to creating innovative outreach and education strategies to protect the right to vote, state and local elected officials, grassroots organizations, service providers, labor unions, schools, houses of worship and concerned individuals play a critical role in the ID acquisition process and must work together collaboratively to make the effort most effective.
Voting is a fundamental right and for many Americans voting is their most important civic act. In 2012 we should be expanding access to the ballot box to ensure that every eligible voter can participate in our democracy. Unfortunately, for millions of citizens who are predominately from communities of color, people with disabilities, seniors and students, these newly passed photo identification laws will present unnecessary challenges in order to vote. We must empower community leaders and organizations working to help voters acquire ID so we can preserve this fundamental right.
CHRIS MELODY FIELDS (Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law), TOVA WANG (Demos), BEN HOVLAND (Fair Elections Legal Network) and JENNY FLANAGAN (Common Cause) are co-authors of Got ID? Helping Americans Get Voter Identification