Skip Navigation
Report

The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification

  • Keesha Gaskins
  • Sundeep Iyer
Published: July 18, 2012

Ten states now have unpre­ced­en­ted restrict­ive voter ID laws. Alabama, Geor­gia, Indi­ana, Kansas, Missis­sippi, Pennsylvania, South Caro­lina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wiscon­sin all require citizens to produce specific types of govern­ment-issued photo iden­ti­fic­a­tion before they can cast a vote that will count. Legal preced­ent requires these states to provide free photo ID to eligible voters who do not have one. Unfor­tu­nately, these free IDs are not equally access­ible to all voters. This report is the first compre­hens­ive assess­ment of the diffi­culties that eligible voters face in obtain­ing free photo ID.

Exec­ut­ive Summary

Ten states now have unpre­ced­en­ted restrict­ive voter ID laws. Alabama, Geor­gia, Indi­ana, Kansas, Missis­sippi, Pennsylvania, South Caro­lina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wiscon­sin all require citizens to produce specific types of govern­ment-issued photo iden­ti­fic­a­tion before they can cast a vote that will count. Legal preced­ent requires these states to provide free photo ID to eligible voters who do not have one.

Unfor­tu­nately, these free IDs are not equally access­ible to all voters. This report is the first compre­hens­ive assess­ment of the diffi­culties that eligible voters face in obtain­ing free photo ID.

The 11 percent of eligible voters who lack the required photo ID must travel to a desig­nated govern­ment office to obtain one. Yet many citizens will have trouble making this trip. In the 10 states with restrict­ive voter ID laws:

  • Nearly 500,000 eligible voters do not have access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID-issu­ing office open more than two days a week. Many of them live in rural areas with dwind­ling public trans­port­a­tion options.
  • More than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest state ID-issu­ing office open more than two days a week.
  • 1.2 million eligible black voters and 500,000 eligible Hispanic voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issu­ing office open more than two days a week. People of color are more likely to be disen­fran­chised by these laws since they are less likely to have photo ID than the general popu­la­tion.
  • Many ID-issu­ing offices main­tain limited busi­ness hours. For example, the office in Sauk City, Wiscon­sin is open only on the fifth Wednes­day of any month. But only four months in 2012 — Febru­ary, May, August, and Octo­ber — have five Wednes­days. In other states — Alabama, Geor­gia, Missis­sippi, and Texas — many part-time ID-issu­ing offices are in the rural regions with the highest concen­tra­tions of people of color and people in poverty.

More than 1 million eligible voters in these states fall below the federal poverty line and live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issu­ing office open more than two days a week. These voters may be partic­u­larly affected by the signi­fic­ant costs of the docu­ment­a­tion required to obtain a photo ID. Birth certi­fic­ates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certi­fic­ates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By compar­ison, the notori­ous poll tax — outlawed during the civil rights era — cost $10.64 in current dollars.

The result is plain: Voter ID laws will make it harder for hundreds of thou­sands of poor Amer­ic­ans to vote. They place a seri­ous burden on a core consti­tu­tional right that should be univer­sally avail­able to every Amer­ican citizen.

This Novem­ber, restrict­ive voter ID states will provide 127 elect­oral votes — nearly half of the 270 needed to win the pres­id­ency. There­fore, the abil­ity of eligible citizens without photo ID to obtain one could have a major influ­ence on the outcome of the 2012 elec­tion.

Fore­word

“All men are created equal.” This shin­ing vision of polit­ical equal­ity, set out in the Declar­a­tion of Inde­pend­ence, makes the United States excep­tional, two centur­ies later.

Thus it is wrong to enact laws to make it harder for some Amer­ic­ans to vote — not only wrong, but utterly at odds with our most basic national values. Every eligible citizen should be able to vote. And every citizen should take the respons­ib­il­ity to do so. One person, one vote: no more, no less.

Yet since Janu­ary 2011, partis­ans in 19 states have rushed through new laws that cut back on voting rights. In a compre­hens­ive study released last Octo­ber, the Bren­nan Center concluded these laws could make it far harder for millions of eligible citizens to vote. Fortu­nately, the Justice Depart­ment, courts, and voters have blocked or blun­ted many of these laws. Many, but not all. And those who would curb the fran­chise are fiercely fight­ing in court, going so far as to insist that the Voting Rights Act is in fact uncon­sti­tu­tional.

Among the most contro­ver­sial meas­ures are new voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion laws. They require voters to produce specific govern­ment papers, usually with a photo and an expir­a­tion date, to cast a ballot. Let’s be clear: Elec­tion integ­rity is vital. The prob­lem is not requir­ing voter ID, per se — the prob­lem is requir­ing ID that many voters simply do not have. Study after study confirms that 1 in 10 eligible voters lack these specific govern­ment docu­ments.

Federal courts have previ­ously declared that states with restrict­ive voter ID laws must make the neces­sary paper­work avail­able for free. Prob­lem solved? Hardly. This report conclus­ively demon­strates that this prom­ise of free voter ID is a mirage. In the real world, poor voters find shuttered offices, long drives without cars, and with spotty or no bus service, and some­times prohib­it­ive costs. For these Amer­ic­ans, the prom­ise of our demo­cracy is tangibly distant. It can be meas­ured in miles.

It need not be this way. Once partisan “voting wars” have subsided, we can easily move to modern­ize our ramshackle voter regis­tra­tion system. Using digital tech­no­logy, states can assure that every eligible voter is on the rolls. That would add millions to the rolls, cost less, and curb the poten­tial for fraud.

Mean­while, we face a crit­ical national elec­tion that may be marred by vast numbers of Amer­ic­ans effect­ively blocked from the vote. We can and must make sure that the real­ity of 2012 does not repu­di­ate the civic creed first artic­u­lated in 1776.

Michael Wald­man
Pres­id­ent, Bren­nan Center for Justice at New York Univer­sity School of Law
July 2012

Voter ID Maps

Figure 1Percent­age Black and State Driver’s License Offices, Missis­sippi, Alabama, and Geor­gia. The map demon­strates that in the areas with the greatest concen­tra­tions of rural black voters, no state driver’s license offices are open more than two days per week. The figure also shows that many of these states’ part-time offices are located in the areas with the highest concen­tra­tions of black voters. The crosshatched areas outline the 13 contigu­ous “black belt” counties in Missis­sippi, 11 contigu­ous “black belt” counties in Alabama, and 21 contigu­ous “black belt” counties in Geor­gia where all state driver’s license offices are open two days per week or less.

Figure 2: Percent­age Hispanic Popu­la­tion and Driver’s License Office Loca­tions, Texas. The map shows that in some areas in Texas with high concen­tra­tions of Hispanic voters, there are few or no ID-issu­ing offices. The map depicts concen­tra­tions of the Hispanic voting-age popu­la­tion, by 2010 Census Block Group, together with the number of hours per week each office loca­tion is open. The crosshatched areas repres­ent the 32 counties in the U.S.-Mexico border region with few or no ID-issu­ing offices.