Voting Rights Uprising: Activists in Three States Help GOP's Targets Get Voter ID
April 24, 2012
The GOP-led effort to disenfranchise likely Democratic voting blocks by enacting tougher state voter ID laws has run into a new obstacle: targeted populations are fighting back as voting rights advocates are helping people obtain the necessary ID.
Grassroots efforts in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Colorado are profiled in a new report, "Got ID? Helping Americans Get Voter Identification," from Common Cause, Demos, Fair Elections Legal Network, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The report is an important counterpoint to persistent progressive messaging about the GOP’s attack on voting rights that typically has not informed people how to overcome the barriers.
“This report gives Americans the tools they need to fight back and make their voices heard,” said Jenny Rose Flanagan, director of voting and elections at Common Cause.
The battle over tougher ballot access is a years-long fight where proponent’s arguments are not supported by facts on the ground and mask their partisan goals—shaping the electorate to achieve or maintain political power. There is nothing new about enacting laws (or running campaign ads) to discourage voting.
In 2003, states began enacting photo ID laws. Pushed by Republicans and a few conservative Southern Democrats, the goal was to restrict voting by slices of society the power-brokers considered undesirable: minorities, low-income people, students, the disabled and elderly—the very people likely to vote against them. Proponents proclaimed photo ID laws would protect election integrity of the process by prevent unregistered voters from casting ballots, and preclude miscreants from voting more than once. They said people could not board a flight without a photo ID, so why not require the same for voting, which is far more important than merely taking a trip.
The problem is that not everyone has a state-issued photo ID—particularly people who do not drive, such as many inner city residents, students and older people. Moreover, voting fraud—or posing as another person and casting a ballot—is rare. If it does happen, it usually is singular instances that are typically caught by election officials and prosecuted. Even right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe’s recent gambits to try to fraudulently vote (such as in the 2012 New Hampshire Primary) saw him flee—for fear of being arrested. Nonetheless, GOP majorities have passed tougher state ID laws, affecting millions, knowing that elections can turn on very slim margins.
To date, 30 states require voters to show ID to get a ballot. The toughest version of this law, requiring residents present a specific state-issued photo ID, are in place in five states: Indiana, Georgia, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Other states have passed photo ID laws, but those changes have either been rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice in South Carolina and Texas, which has jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act, or face a pending DOJ decision (Alabama), or have been suspended by a federal court (Wisconsin, although an appeal is pending). Several other states are considering similar legislation. A Virginia bill is back before its legislature. Minnesota will vote on it in November.
Unlike 2008, grassroots groups in key states are working to empower voters to obtain the needed ID to vote this fall. Three states are setting an example for others to follow.
In typical Badger State style, local groups have galvanized around the voting rights challenge imposed by the state’s photo ID law—which was adopted by the Republican majority in 2011 but was recently found unconstitutional by a federal court. The state’s GOP leaders have appealed. Meanwhile, activists are not taking any chances—not with a gubernatorial recall election and presidential election this year.
“A lot of organizations are running on limited resources, using a lot of volunteers to try to help people get IDs if that’s possible,” said Tova Wang of Demos.
That’s exactly what’s happening. “Milwaukee provides free birth certificates for those who don’t have them, and activists are providing free transportation to the Department of Motor Vehicles so voters can get IDs,” she said.
Another key program, Wisconsin Voices, developed a relationship with the Department of Motor Vehicles. Advocates filed a public records request and got more than 2 million names of residents with drivers' licenses. That was cross-referenced with a voter contact and management system. As a result, 1.3 million individuals were identified who may need photo IDs to vote.
To help college students, meanwhile, organizers set up the “Be a Voter!” program to get thousands of them registered before upcoming elections. Milwaukee churches also were mobilized to assist inner-city residents take the steps necessary to get proper identification. And a group called “9to5” focuses its outreach on low-income women and young people so they can get proper credentials. Elderly advocates are also assessing how many eligible voters lack birth certificates in senior centers.
In Tennessee, the Voter Assistance Coalition has been reaching out to communities though a network of grassroots partners—unions, churches and students and teachers at colleges and universities, according to Ben Hovland, an attorney with the Fair Elections Legal Network. The coalition has been identifying those who lack credentials, primarily people without driver’s licenses, which is about 10 percent of prospective voters.
“Now, to get a driver’s license, you need a birth certificate,” Hovland explained. “Some people don’t have one, have lost it, and some are born outside a hospital and never got one.” The Coalition walks people through the arduous task of getting a birth certificate, and then a driver’s license. Once it helps people to secure birth certificates, local churches provide rides to DMV offices so people can get photo required IDs.
For older Tennessee residents there’s an added problem. The state does not require older drivers to have photographs on their licenses and Holvand says many folks don’t have them. The Coalition has been assisting seniors to get new licenses with photos.
What Tennessee is doing can be done anywhere, he said. “Our hope is that in places where there are these bad laws that citizens and community groups can help their fellow residents so that fewer people will be disenfranchised.”
Colorado does not have a photo ID law for voting. But low-income state residents have had to deal with a similar intrusion, said Common Cause’s Flanagan. In 2006, its legislature required picture ID for people who receive public benefits. That spawned the Collaborative ID project, which is now working to ensure eligible voters will not face obstacles at the polls.
Linda Olson, senior attorney for Colorado Legal Services, said during a special session that year, lawmakers passed several immigration bills. One of them was H.B. 1023 on public benefits. “The thinking was there were undocumented people receiving public benefits and this was a way to weed them out by requiring everyone to have a state ID,” Olson said. “The reality is they didn’t find hardly any undocumented people getting public benefits.”
For the past six years, the Collaborative ID project has helped people get birth certificates and IDs. “Some are lawfully present immigrants but most of our clients are U.S. citizens,” Olson said.
The project has already helped 10,000 people obtain proper IDs, Flanagan said, but it’s a costly undertaking. The need has outstripped what the group can do, Olson said. Foundation funding provides money so the poor can get birth certificates or other ID. “We have $5,000 a month for that and we’re usually turning people away by the fifth of each month,” she said.
While other state legislatures across the country consider voter ID legislation, “We’re hopeful we won’t continue to see these laws passed,” said Common Cause’s Flanagan. “Once these laws pass, the impact is so great.” The Fair Election Legal Network’s Hovland agreed. “These laws are unnecessary and they certainly are going to have an impact on certain segments of the population.”
Whether the number of states increases, the Got ID? report suggests more groups must step forward to help eligible voters.
“It is vitally important that community leaders, particularly those who work with communities of color, young people, seniors, and people with disabilities take an active role in helping voters acquire the requisite photo ID,” said Chris Melody Fields, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“Many local organizations are just beginning to get started,” Wang noted, “and hopefully there will be more funding.”
The report is a wake-up call to voting rights advocates: get moving to ensure everyone can vote. And time is running out. The presidential election is just 28 weeks away.