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Disenfranchised because of voter ID bureaucracy? VoteRiders and Kathleen Unger can help

In Alabama next week, and across the United States next November, voters — even voters who are old hands at voting, who’ve cast ballots for years — may find themselves standing at a polling place being told that this time, they don’t have the right identification to vote. Over the last several years, voter ID laws have been enacted as a kind of solution in search of a problem. Voter fraud is one of President Trump’s favorite hobbyhorses, his claim that he lost the popular vote because of millions of illegally cast votes. Three years ago, a Loyola Law School professor’s study confirmed again what every other serious study has shown: that voter fraud is a political chimera. He found that of the billion or so ballots cast between 2000 and 2014, only 31 were fraudulently cast at a polling place.

Kathleen Unger’s group works above that particular fray. She founded VoteRiders in 2012, and while legislatures and lawmakers and lawyers do battle over this supposed specter of voter fraud, her Santa Monica-based national nonprofit is skipping all that and going right to saying, “You need a particular ID to vote? Fine, we’ll help you get it.” VoteRiders’ goal is that no one who’s eligible to vote gets turned away for want of the required ID, which can differ from one state to the next and even one election to the next. Whatever your state’s ID rules, Unger wants you to have it in the bag — meaning, right in your pocket.


The name VoteRiders evokes the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, who went to the South to register black people to vote. Was it the Freedom Riders who gave you the name and the idea?

It was the initial inspiration. And then VoteRiders also includes within it “voter ID,” so it’s actually VoteRiders equals “voter IDers.”

Whether voter ID should be required at all, and what kind of ID, is still being hashed out through the courts. But a lot of people might think, “Well, I’ve got a driver’s license — what’s so hard about that?”

You’re right, a majority of people have a current driver’s license in their state in their current name. However, there are tens of millions of American citizens who don’t have that kind of driver’s license. They don’t have a current driver’s license in their state in their current name.

These are older adults who are no longer driving, if they ever did. They are young adults going to school in another state, or who are riding bicycles and taking public transportation. They are people of color. They are people with disabilities. They are people with low incomes.

And then a number of states require an exact match between the name on your voter ID and the name in which you’re registered to vote, and that impacts women especially, since up to 90% of women who marry change their names.

It is very difficult to wend your way through the maze of bureaucracies to acquire all the various kinds of documentation you need in order to get an ID.

So you’re right that the polls show that a majority of the public think that voter ID is a good idea. But they don’t think about the people who don’t have a driver’s license, people whose paperwork — including any kind of ID — was destroyed in a natural disaster.

Many people — tens of thousands of American citizens — don’t have an official birth certificate, especially African Americans who are, at this point, as young as in their latter 50s, whose mother was not allowed to give birth in the local white hospital. And so they were born at home and delivered by a midwife. So there are many difficulties that people encounter in trying to get an ID.

It’s like an ID merry-go-round. Once you’re on the merry-go-round, you don’t have any problem staying on — you get into the system and ID begets more ID. But trying to get on a moving merry-go-round: pretty hard.

That’s a great analogy. And it is very difficult to wend your way through the maze of bureaucracies to acquire all the various kinds of documentation you need in order to get a government-issued photo ID.

Most states require, when you apply to get a certified copy of your birth certificate, that you submit a copy of your photo ID, which, considering this situation, is something of a Catch-22.

How does VoteRiders work for an individual voter who doesn’t have the ID necessary to meet his or her state’s requirements?

If the voter doesn’t have any of those IDs, then we review with that voter the kinds of documentation that the state requires in order to get the [state’s] “free voter ID.” And if the individual doesn’t have any of those documents, then we help them to secure the documents.

With regard to an original or certified copy of a birth certificate, if an individual doesn’t have that, we will work with them to apply to the appropriate state. We will pay for the cost of that document if this is a low-income voter.

Since you started this, in April 2012, how many voters have you obtained IDs for?

We’ve obtained IDs for several hundred voters. We have confirmed that people have the correct ID for tens of thousands of voters.

We have found that there are two kinds of voters when it comes to voter ID: those who don’t have the requisite ID in their state, and then, broadly, there’s everyone else. Because these laws are very confusing, and they’re constantly changing, people don’t know whether it applies to them, and if so, what do they need?

They are oftentimes leery of delving into the various bureaucracies. What we have found on the ground is that numbers of voters are so intimidated by these laws that they will not vote, even though they have an acceptable ID.

You also have something people can download, state by state, that says what the state’s ID requirements are, and they can take that to a polling place so that if anyone challenges their ID, they can say, “Nope, here’s the law.”

We have created a voter ID wallet-sized card for all 50 states and D.C., in English and in Spanish. And these cards highlight precisely the kinds of IDs that are acceptable in that state, along with some of the nuances.

Our partner, Mi Familia Vota Texas, distributed our Texas voter ID information wallet cards as part of their canvasing effort in six majority Latino precincts in Houston for last November’s election. While overall Houston voter turnout decreased by 1% compared with the 2012 presidential election, turnout in those six precincts increased by an average of almost 9% per precinct.

So these cards enable people to confirm that they have the right ID. If they don’t, then they can call our toll-free help line number or email us and we go into action to help them. People actually put them in their wallets, and if they’re dealing with a misinformed poll worker, they can extract the card, and say, “But it says here that this kind of ID is OK, and that’s what I have.”

It gives people the courage to stand up and to speak up to the authority in the polling place, who frankly may not be as well-versed in the voter ID law as one would hope.

How is it that poll workers don’t know the rules?

In a number of states, training is not required, and in any event, it can be inconsistent. And frankly, being a poll worker is a difficult job, and voter ID is very complicated in and of itself. So it’s not surprising that voters and poll workers themselves are confused.

I have read of people who were in their 80s or 90s who had voted in every election being suddenly turned away because of new laws that created this hurdle to voting that was not there before.

Oh, absolutely. There are many, many stories like that, and it just breaks my heart. That’s why I founded VoteRiders because I was just frankly outraged that people were losing their right to vote.

I’ve read a couple of cases of people who’ve gotten their ID thanks to you. Is there one that stands out?

Dennis Hatten, an African American veteran of the Marines, in Wisconsin. When we initially found him, he was living at a veterans’ shelter, and we worked with Dennis for six months seeking documents.

Finally, they found what they thought might be his birth certificate, but the first name wasn’t Dennis — it was “Denet.” As it turns out, this is what the [French-speaking] midwife had written. Fortunately, he was able to get his voter ID only because when he had initially applied for his Social Security number, the name “Denet” also was used. So there was that corroboration between the two.

Six months with the lawyers and our Wisconsin statewide coordinator, working constantly to get his ID.

You are nonpartisan, but I’m sure you hear accusations that you are not.

Yes, we do. But we never ask anyone how they plan to vote. As a matter of fact, we’d been on the ground in Virginia all this year, through the Nov. 7 election — Virginia being a strict voter ID state — and a gentleman called us at our help line.

He said, “You know, I’m a Republican, and I voted for Trump,” and I said, “Well, that doesn’t matter. If you want to vote, we want to make sure that you’re going to be able to vote. So what can we do to help you?”

I just am deeply concerned about the very foundation of our Constitution, the right to vote, the first three words of the Constitution — “We the People.” If “we, the people” cannot voice our opinion about our government and who’s running it, then the whole thing just crumbles. It’s that essential.

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