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Voter ID 101: The Right to Vote Shouldn't Come With Barriers


Since the founding of this country, Americans have fought for the right to vote. From the 15th and 19th Amendments to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there have been many long, hard battles and many victories in the field of voting rights. But the fight is not over. In many ways, it is worse than ever.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a major provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder that required states and local governments to get federal approval before changing voting laws. These provisions were in place to stop racially discriminatory laws from being passed at the state level to curtail voting rights. Just two hours after the Supreme Court decision, the state of Texas passed the first version of a new voter ID law, which allowed citizens to vote with a concealed-carry gun permit, but not with a student ID card. As of this writing, 34 states have voter ID laws on the books, and 20 of those states require government-issued photo ID with limited or no alternatives.

So what’s the problem with this? 21 million eligible votersin the United States do not have government-issued photo ID. And, for many, these IDs are very difficult to secure.

People have fought and died for the right to vote. Voter ID laws prevent people from exercising this right. If you live in a voter ID state,  there is someone in your district who cannot vote because they don’t have the right ID. Lack of access to ID cards impacts people even in states without voter ID laws. Accessing a photo ID is much more challenging for the young, the elderly,  people of color, and people with low incomes. All of these groups are more likely not to have photo ID, which means they aren’t authorized to work, and may not have access to their local shelter or food bank.

If you care about voter participation and making an impact at the polls in your district, getting IDs can not only change the electorate, but changes lives.

What Are Voter ID Laws?

Voter ID laws are laws that say that a voter must show some form of identification to be able to vote. The exact form of ID necessary to vote varies from state to state. In some voter ID states, it’s as “simple” as showing proof of residence like a utility bill or W-2. In states with strict voter ID laws, voters can be required to show  a specific form of photo ID from a designated list (for example, a state driver’s license, passport, etc.).

Those who advocate for voter ID laws claim they prevent in-person voter fraud, but this is a myth. In person voter fraud is extremely rare. In a 2014 study, only 31 cases were found out of more than 1 billion ballots cast in elections from 2000-2014. And those 31 included any and all credible claims, not just prosecutions and convictions.

In reality, voter ID laws are a powerful form of voter suppression. Millions of voters are prevented from using their voice at the polls because of voter ID laws—and voter suppression doesn’t hit the whole country equally. Much like poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow days, these laws are created to prevent specifically targeted populations from voting. Voter ID laws target eligible voters who are less likely to have IDs. In reality, this means these laws suppress the vote from elderly, low-income and voters of color:

  • 18 percent—or almost 6 million—citizens over the age of 65 do not have photo ID;

  • 16 percent of Latino voters do not have government-issued photo ID;

  • 25 percent of voting age African Americans—5.5 million people – do not have ID; and

  • 15 percent of voting age Americans who earn less than $35,000 do not have ID.

These are some of the people who are prevented from voting by voter ID laws.

Why Don’t People Have ID?

For many Americans, an ID seems like an easy thing to obtain. Everyone has one, right? Wrong. Think about it this way. The most common form of ID is a driver’s license. A lot of people don’t drive. Maybe they live in urban areas, are elderly, or can’t afford driver’s ed or a car. For those folks, driving is off the table. In some cases, people are working schedules that stop them from accessing the venues in which drivers license's could be obtained. That doesn’t mean voting should be off the table.

Even other forms of required ID can be hard for many people to come by. Other common forms of required ID include US passports, military ID, and (depending on the state), government or private employer IDs, tribal IDs, student IDs, and gun or hunting licenses. In practice, this means that if you don’t drive, don’t travel internationally, don’t have a job that gives you an ID, and don’t hunt or carry a gun, you can’t vote in many states. You’ll frequently hear the argument that a person has to have an ID to drive a car or buy alcohol—so why can’t we require ID to vote? Let’s be serious: driving a car and buying alcohol are not fundamental civil rights. Voting is.

What Does It Take to Get an ID?

Most states that pass voter ID laws create something called a free voter ID. Spoiler alert: these IDs are not actually free. In fact, they can get very expensive. In most states, multiple documents are required to get this “free” ID, just like any other government-issued photo ID. Required documents can include a birth certificate, social security card, citizenship papers, proof of residency, and more. Many, many people do not have access to their birth certificates. People experiencing homelessness frequently do not have access to these documents, nor do  people who’ve experienced natural disasters, those who move frequently or who just aren’t good at tracking paperwork! The problem is even worse for Americans born in Puerto Rico, a territory which invalidated all birth certificates issued before 2010 in order to address identity theft issues.  Not having a birth certificate is common and getting a replacement can be difficult, expensive, or both.

Even if someone has all of the required documents for a “free” ID, transportation to the DMV or registrar’s office can be a challenge. After all, if you don’t have an ID, you don’t have a driver’s license. Most Americans do not live in cities with robust public transportation options, and even public transit can be expensive. People in rural areas have an even more difficult time getting to their DMV, which may be miles away. Even more troublingly: some states, like Alabama, paired their new voter ID laws with the closure of DMVs in predominantly Black areas.

So in order to vote in states with strict voter ID laws, a voter would need to:

  1. Be aware of the type of IDs required to vote;

  2. Obtain the right documentation;

  3. Pay the cost of replacing any lost documentation;

  4. Secure transportation; and finally  

  5. Overcome the very real fear of dealing with a bureaucracy that is traditionally hostile to low-income Americans and people of color.

Voting should not require overcoming so many barriers. We have fought these battles before and won. If we work together, we can win them again, and make sure every American has not just the right, but also the ability, to vote.

How Your Group Can Take Action

If the fight over voter ID laws seems like bad news, it is. But there’s good news too: we can beat this. If we work together, we can help people obtain the IDs they need to vote. When voters come to the polls, they’ll be able to choose the leaders who best represent their interests. Only then can we get these laws repealed and ensure voting rights for everyone.

There Are Three Ways That You Can Make a Difference:

  1. If you live in Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, or Texas, connect your group to Spread The Vote who can train you and provide funding and infrastructure to help you get IDs in your community.

    • Don’t live in one of those states? Sign up for the Spread The Vote newsletter to find out when they’re launching in a state near you.

  2. If you don’t live in a voter ID state, you can still help those without ID get to the polls. Focus on voter registration, education, and GOTV efforts. Start talking to folks in your community early and go back often. Get to know their biggest issues and how voting, especially in local elections, can really affect their lives. Making elections personal and hyperlocal will demystify voting and illustrate why every vote really counts. Check out Indivisible435 for a guide on voter registration, and a voter registration tool you can use in your community.

  3. Make noise. Contact your politicians, especially if you live in voter ID states. Write op-eds. Shout out loud that voter ID laws are unjust and how they affect elections in your district. Never let people think these laws are normal or fair.