Opinion

We Need To Make Getting IDs Easier, Not Voting Without Them

Because an ID card is the passkey to legitimate employment, banking, licensure, voter registration and even purchasing Sudafed, Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke in Philadelphia on Monday and urged states to help ex-offenders obtain photo identification upon their release.

While it was designed to spark interest in the first National Re-Entry Week, Lynch’s announcement has implications for Voter ID laws and shows that we don’t need to eliminate the barriers of ID’s, but rather we need to remove the barriers to ID’s. That is, we should be helping people get those ID cards, not excusing them for not having one.

From serving six-plus years in prison among a very poor population, I know the challenge of maintaining one’s identification. I suspect that I am the only woman at York Correctional Institution to renew her driver’s license by mail so I wouldn’t be required to re-test once I got out. I knew how important identification would be to my reentry.

Most of the other inmates, though, didn’t have ID when they came in and they didn’t have it when they left. I can’t tell if they didn’t need ID originally because they weren’t involved with legitimate activities like employment or they weren’t involved in these activities because they didn’t have an ID.

Since I’ve been released and been engaging in advocacy for people exiting prison, I’ve met several ex-offenders who simply don’t want an identification card because of what comes with it: a state-issued, hologrammed pic gives its holder accountability. From experience, I think this might be the case for many of the estimated 21 million people who lack photo ID; they just don’t want the responsibility.

When you have government-issued ID, the state has an address where they can find you. Even if you’ve skipped, law enforcement can question the people around that location and track you down. I have encountered a number of deadbeat dads who purposely eschew identification so they can’t be found. If you guessed that these men were unemployed, you were right. If you’re not doing the right thing, it is much wiser to answer “Nothing” when someone asks “What’s in your wallet?”

My experience, both in prison and since, taught me that the arguments used by people who oppose voter ID laws — that they suppress the votes of the poor and minorities who are less likely to have such identification — are ultimately unavailing.

Opponents of voter ID laws claim that people who live in urban areas are more likely to rely on mass transit and therefore lack driver’s licenses. This argument might work if there were no other option but a driver’s license, but every state offers non-driver, government issued identification cards. The fact that someone can’t afford a car or doesn’t know how to drive shouldn’t stand in their way of securing proof of who they are.

Then the issue of cost surfaces and those who are trying to dismantle photo ID checks for voters claim that they are a type of tax that admits to the polls only people who can afford to pay for an ID card.

It’s true that the cost of an ID can be prohibitive for some people. Oregon tops all of the states by soaking its residents $44.50 for a non-driver ID card. At that price, Oregon is right not to require ID’s at the polls.

But the nationwide average cost for identification is 18 dollars, so price doesn’t need to be an issue in the ID war, and not because everyone can come up with 18 bucks.

The cost is low enough that governments should waive the fees for anyone who can’t afford it. In many states, the fee waiver procedures are already in place, but the applicant must meet certain criteria which can sometimes be restrictive.

It’s not like waiving fees across the board hasn’t been done. South Carolina doesn’t charge for an ID at all. The State of California gives free identification cards to homeless people because identification is so essential to living in society that you can’t even enter a shelter without that bit of lamination; there’s no reason not to extend the same policy to poor people who have homes but can’t afford that extra expense. People leaving prison in Illinois and Montana get free ID’s upon release.

I would expect that anti-poverty groups would actually support voter ID laws and use them to induce state governments to waive fees for indigent residents who apply for ID cards. If poverty is what prevents people from securing ID’s – those plastic passports to commerce, employment, education and general self-edification – then they should be free of cost so that less fortunate people can still fully participate in society, and not just by voting.

Proponents of voter ID laws advance flimsy arguments, too, when they say that these requirements will ferret out fraudsters. People who don’t want ID cards are so disengaged that they aren’t planning on voting once, much less twice. Not only is there virtually no evidence of crime in voting, someone who’s motivated enough to commit election fraud will use a fake ID.

Proper documentation for an ID card can be hard to produce, I know. Sometimes bureaucracy’s baby – the Catch 22 – prevents people from getting a birth certificate without photo ID and they can’t get a photo ID without a birth certificate.

But people caught in that vortex support themselves somehow. Even if they don’t work (which would require ID) and subsist on entitlement programs, someone knows who they are. I cannot believe that there isn’t some way for the government – the same government that should require ID to vote — to assist them in getting an identification card if they are inclined to get one.

Voter ID laws have always appealed to me as potential way to fold in people from the fringes of society. I would support a kind of inverse Motor Voter Act, one-stop civic participation – where someone who comes to vote without ID can get an ID, for free. If she’s sufficiently proved her identity to vote, then she should be sufficiently proven to be the person named and pictured in the id card. Voter ID laws wouldn’t hinder her in the next election.

Voter ID requirements aren’t the voter suppression tool people think they are; access to identification is what’s keeping people out of society. Like the Attorney General said, if people who want to live responsibly but face some barrier to getting the ID card that can make that happen, then they should be helped, not left out of our democracy.