Democracy works best when all eligible persons are able to participate and make their voices heard. This ideal is under attack because of restrictive photo identification laws passed recently in many states that will prevent hundreds of thousands of eligible persons from participating in elections.
At the time this report was written, 10 states had passed legislation imposing strict government-issued photo identification requirements for voters to present at the polls in order to cast a ballot. Similar legislation has been proposed by state legislatures across the country. The voting rights community has fought against such unreasonably restrictive photo identification requirements because they prevent eligible voters from participating, impose enormous and unjustified costs on states, and do not serve the goals that are put forward for these laws.
At the same time, in order to ensure that eligible voters can vote, advocates must adapt to the new reality in the states where restrictive photo ID laws have already been enacted, by taking steps to assist eligible voters in obtaining the necessary IDs.
Millions of citizens residing in states with these restrictive laws do not currently possess the requisite photo ID, and may be unable to exercise their right to vote on Election Day. Studies show that those without ID are disproportionately likely to be African American, Latino, low-income voters, young adults, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. For many of these eligible persons, it is no simple matter to obtain the necessary ID — the hurdles involved can make doing so difficult, and in some cases, impossible.
In response to these new requirements, organizations in some affected states have established “Got ID?” programs designed to assist citizens who wish to obtain photo ID in order to vote. However, more of these efforts are needed, and this need will only increase as strict ID laws pass in other states. New programs to assist individuals in obtaining IDs can benefit from the experience and lessons learned from organizations currently undertaking such efforts.
Interviews with representatives of some of the organizations with experience running “Got ID?” programs in Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Colorado have yielded a number of “best-practice” recommendations:
Create a diverse, engaged coalition
Programs are most effective when they engage a broad coalition of organizations. A successful coalition ideally includes organizations representing those most affected by photo ID laws – such as communities of color, youth, disability, low-income, seniors, women, and transgen- dered groups; organizations with established programs aiding people to obtain ID – such as social service agencies, service providers, legal services, local bar associations, poverty groups and homeless shelters; and groups with established and trusted community links – such as faith, labor or community organizations.
Develop relationships with government agencies and elected officials.
The program will need to work with social security agencies, the Department of Voter Vehicles (DMV), and state vital statistics offices, so their cooperation is critical. Additionally, friendly elected officials may be able to use political influence to expedite various parts of the process.
Prepare to identify impacted voters
Voters may not be aware of new requirements on ID, so it is important to reach them well in advance of Election Day. To the extent that it is possible to crosscheck DMV records against current registration rolls, this can significantly expedite identifying individuals that need assistance. Where that is not available, an extensive community outreach strategy, using schools, faith communities, labor unions and other community organizations coupled with an earned and free media strategy to local papers, radio stations, television and social networking to raise awareness of changes to the law can also help identify individuals that need assistance.
Facilitate transportation for voters
DMV offices, which provide the largest source of acceptable IDs, often are situated in inconvenient locations and are not open at convenient times. A number of programs, working with other organizations or the local transit authority, have addressed these problems by arranging free or reduced transport to DMV offices.
Identify sources of internet access.
In many states, information about getting identification and resources for getting underlying documents such as birth certificates are online. In some states a birth certificate can be requested online, though in many of these states doing so may mean additional fees that do not apply to mail and in-person requests. Providing access to the Internet may help voters access key information and save them a lengthy trip to a government office.
Seek out potential sources to offset costs
States enacting strict ID laws often use rhetoric about IDs being available free of charge. Many times, however, the reality does not match the rhetoric, because the documentation required to qualify for ID – such as birth certificates, passports, or naturalization papers – is not free and indeed may be very costly for persons of limited means. Legislation at the state or local level to provide free birth certificates can be a tremendous help. Where that is not possible, identifying other sources of public or private funding to help offset costs for individuals can be extremely important.
Follow up with voters
It is essential to follow up with voters to ensure that they make it to the polls, especially if they also require assistance on Election Day. A program should create a database which tracks each voter’s needs as well as problems they may have encountered in the process.
Voting is a fundamental right. Unfortunately, that right is being threatened in many states around the country. Individuals and groups that want to help those at risk of being disenfranchised by such laws can do so by starting a “Got ID?” program in their community. Following these best practice guidelines will help to ensure that more people who are eligible to vote can continue to do so.