Well Actually, It’s Pretty Hard for Some People to Get a Photo ID So They Can Vote

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Well Actually, It’s Pretty Hard for Some People to Get a Photo ID So They Can Vote

Imani Gandy

Getting a photo ID to vote is actually a pretty huge deal for a lot of Americans—and it's why voter ID laws are so insidiously effective at disenfranchising people.

“What’s the big deal with requiring a photo ID before you vote?”

That’s the big question that silly people who love them some voter ID laws tend to ask before they launch into a tirade about how ridiculous it is that people are protesting those laws.

And that tirade is usually followed by a litany of things that you need photo ID for, like boarding a plane, buying beer, entering a government building, purchasing a gun, or doing something else that is not a fundamental right the same way that voting is. (Oh, by the way? You don’t need a photo ID to board a plane. You also don’t necessarily need a photo ID to buy beer, enter a government building, or purchase a gun, as Brad Friedman points out in this post that you totally should read.)

And that litany of things is usually followed by you contemplating ripping your ears right off of your head because the stupidity just won’t stop.

You’ve heard it all before, but maybe you just don’t feel like explaining that voter ID laws are simply a tool used to suppress votes, so you just throw up your hands in frustration and walk away because you’re really sick of arguing with your Uncle Bob about this shit all the time. Uncle Bob is a real “Don’t Tread on Me” sort of guy, who gets all of his news from emails with subject headings that read “FW: FW: FW: FW: Where’s President Obummer’s Birth Certificate?!”

It’s frustrating, I know.

But listen: It’s important to explain to Uncle Bob and his ilk that voter ID laws disenfranchise a lot of people. Especially when Uncle Bob grumpily complains that obtaining a photo ID isn’t that hard, and even if it is, people who think that voting is really important should either get one or shut the hell up already.

What Uncle Bob fails to understand is that a lot of people don’t have a photo ID because they don’t need it. There are people who don’t drive. People who don’t have bank accounts and simply get their checks cashed by the dude who runs the local market down the street. People who live in small towns where everybody knows their name and they’ve never had a reason to get a photo ID. People who used to have a driver’s license, but it expired and they don’t have the money or time to get a new one. Homeless people who have nowhere to lay their head, much less the ability to make it to a government office to get a photo ID, and even if they got one, the police would probably just confiscate all of their shit anyway because they think homeless people should be neither seen nor heard.

And for these people, getting a photo ID solely for the purpose of voting when all they needed before was their voter registration certificate can be very difficult. And it’s especially hard on people of color, people with disabilities, non-English speakers, elderly people, and low-income folks. Don’t even get me started on students, with their multiple residences and transient lifestyles.

In her decision calling Texas’ voter ID law an unconstitutional poll tax, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos detailed just how hard it is for some people to get a photo ID.

In Texas, for example, the cost of traveling to the nearest Department of Public Safety office, Texas’ version of the DMV, can be burdensome: Of the 254 counties in Texas, 78 do not have a permanent DPS office. In some communities along the Mexican border, the nearest DPS office is between 100 and 125 miles away. And in rural communities in other states, the DMV offices are few and far between.

That means a person without a driver’s license is going to have to rely on a family member or a friend to drive them to the DMV (or, in Texas, the DPS) in order to get a photo ID card. Now ask yourself this—would you want to drive your Uncle Bob two hours each way and then stand in line at the DMV for god-knows-how-long to get a photo ID?

Yeah, I didn’t think so. Uncle Bob is kind of weird and he smells like soup.

And then there are financial constraints.

Oftentimes, people don’t even have the money to pay for the underlying documentation needed to get a photo ID card. Getting a photo ID invariably requires proof of identification; usually, that means you need your birth certificate. But what if you don’t have your birth certificate? Then you have to contact whatever government office is in charge of that sort of thing to get a copy of it. And that can be a real pain in the ass for a lot of reasons.

For that matter, a lot of birth certificates have mistakes on them. If your name is spelled wrong, then you have to go through a whole rigamarole to get that fixed before you can get your ID card.

Some people have never been issued a birth certificate. A lot of elderly Black folks, for example, were birthed by midwives at home. They don’t have birth certificates.

A lot of rural folks—Black, white, Latino, whatever—were born on farms. They don’t have birth certificates either.

And did you know that in 2010, the birth certificates of all American citizens born in Puerto Rico expired? Because they did. So if you were born in Puerto Rico and you need a birth certificate, well, good luck with that. Sure, you can pay five bucks to get a new one—and let’s not forget that for some people, like low-income folks or homeless folks, even five dollars is five dollars too much—but guess what you need in order to get a new birth certificate?

If you guessed “a photo ID card,” give yourself a pat on the back.

So if you’re Puerto Rican and you don’t have a photo ID or a driver’s license, you have to get a copy of your birth certificate from Puerto Rico. But in order to get your birth certificate, you have to have a photo ID. It’s a vicious circle. (And this sort of problem doesn’t exist only in Puerto Rico. In Texas, for example, in order to get a certified copy of your birth certificate, you need an ID card. And in order to get an ID card, you need a certified copy of your birth certificate. And round and round we go.)

If you’re trying to vote in a state where you live but weren’t born, simply trying to acquire a copy of your out-of-state birth certificate can be prohibitively expensive.

In the Texas voter ID litigation, one plaintiff testified that Louisiana wanted to charge him more than $80 for a copy of his birth certificate. Another plaintiff decided against obtaining his birth certificate from New Jersey, because that state wanted a $30 fee he didn’t have.

The bottom line is this: Voting is a fundamental right. Voting isn’t like buying beer, or entering a government building, or buying a gun. Voting is a civic duty that many Americans take seriously. And many Americans are being denied their right to vote in states where the people in power are afraid that the changing population demographics might squeeze them out of existence.

So next time Uncle Bob starts ranting about voter ID laws and how necessary they are to protect election integrity, copy and paste this blog post in an email to him and put “FW: FW: FW: We found proof that President Obummer isn’t a Real American!” as the subject heading.

It’s the only way to get Uncle Bob to read anything anyway.