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State ID Legislation Threatens to Disenfranchise Homeless Voters

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

“If you have to show a picture ID to buy Sudafed, if you have to show a picture ID to get on an airplane, you should show a picture ID when you vote.” This is South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s justification for a new bill in the state that requires voters to produce photographic identification at the polls. Signed into law on May 18th, the bill also requires voters to produce a voter registration card, and one containing a photograph can be acquired for free with a birth certificate or passport.

South Carolina is far from alone in passing this measure. As of date, fourteen states have passed laws requiring photo identification, with sixteen more having other proof of residence voting requirements, such as presenting a credit card, utility bill, birth certificate, or paycheck if the voter does not have another form of identification. The stated goal of most supporters of this kind of legislation is to reduce voter fraud by making it more difficult for people to vote more than once in an election or for non-citizens to vote.

This trend is only becoming more and more widespread: according to The Brennan Center for Justice, “at least 37 states are considering or have considered voter ID and/or proof of citizenship” bills in this legislative session alone. The graph below shows the astounding recent increase in photo ID legislation passage:

These measures may in fact disenfranchise many American citizens who would otherwise be able to vote. A New York Times Editorial arguing against this type of legislation cites a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice which finds that 11% of American citizens who are of voting age (21 million people) do not have up-to-date photo identification, with that percentage being significantly higher among those with low incomes (15%) and African-Americans (25%). Furthermore, this was a phone survey, so the nation’s entire homeless population was, in all likelihood, not remotely accounted for in the results. If anything, these percentages are likely to be higher among the entire American electorate.

In theory, making photographic identification free, as some of these laws also do, should make it easy for citizens to acquire one and be able to vote. However, it is not that simple. Although most of these state laws have alternatives to using identification on election day, such as provisional ballots and affidavit forms, many of them still put a de facto price on voting for those who simply do not have the means to easily obtain a birth certificate, find out their Social Security number, or to make a trip to the DMV for a state-issued ID, such as the impoverished, disabled, and homeless. The key problem here, as was outlined by Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School in a NPR discussion on the topic, is that “it takes ID to get ID.” Even if finances are not an issue, which they certainly are for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, it can still be “quite difficult to round up the documentation necessary to get documentation. It ends up a little bit of a bureaucratic cycle,” possibly causing voter apathy.

Overall, this legislation puts even more roadblocks in the way for the homeless to vote than there already are. Even though its supporters may indeed have the noble intention of reducing voter fraud, the issue of fraud itself is virtually “nonexistent” according to the New York Times. Regardless of how large or small of a problem voter fraud actually is, the large possibility remains that a surprisingly large number of Americans, at least 21 million, stand to effectively lose their vote if this legislation spreads nationwide unless they acquire a photo ID, which is certainly easier said than done for our marginalized populations, including the homeless.

To find out your state’s current voter identification laws, you can visit the National Conference of State Legislatures voter ID page. Also, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has an up to date report on the progress of voter ID legislation by state.

By Daniel Honeycutt, Intern

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