Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Millions of American Voters Have No Government Issued Photo ID

You probably heard about 96-year-old Dorothy Cooper who couldn't get a free voter photo ID card at a Tennessee Driver Service Center in October. Tennessee has a voter photo ID law nearly identical to Texas' new ID law. Cooper never had a driver's license so she had to get a "free" voter photo ID card to vote in future elections. Even though she had a birth certificate and other ID the Driver Service Center wouldn't issue an ID card because she didn't have her marriage certificate.

Perhaps you've also heard about a 93-year-old Tennessee woman, Thelma Mitchell, who cleaned the state Capitol for 30 years, including the governor’s office and who won’t be able to vote for the first time in decades because she also couldn't get a "free" voter photo ID card at a Tennessee Driver Service Center. Ms. Mitchell was even accused of being an undocumented immigrant because she couldn’t produce a birth certificate:

Mitchell, who was delivered by a midwife in Alabama in 1918, has never had a birth certificate. But when she told that to a drivers’ license clerk, he suggested she might be an illegal immigrant.

Listen to the Story from NPR (5:54) - NPR digital correspondent Corey Dade looks into why people don't have and may not be able obtain government-issued voter photo ID.

Maybe you've heard about a 84-year-old Brokaw, Wisconsin woman, Ruthelle Frank, who won’t be able to vote for the first time in decades because she also couldn't get a "free" voter photo ID card at a Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles.

Born after a difficult birth at her home in 1927, Frank never received an official birth certificate. Without her birth certificate, she can’t secure the state ID card that the new voter photo law requires. The state Register of Deeds in Madison has a record of her birth, but the attending physician at Frank’s birth misspelled her maiden name, so the name on her state recorded birth record does not match the name given on Frank's other identity documents.

The Tennessee and Wisconsin Departments of Motor Vehicles were following requirements of the federal Real ID Act of 2005, which is mandated to take effect in all 50 states by January 2013. After January 2013 even young women across the U.S., who already have a driver's license, may face the same ID road block as 96 year old Dorothy Cooper.

After the commercial airliner attacks of September 11, 2001 the federal government implemented a "war on terror" photo driver's license "Real ID" law, with regulatory oversight given to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Federal Real ID Act mandates that all fifty states must follow specific security, authentication, and issuance regulations, administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in issuing driver's license, personal identification cards or election identification cards.

Applicants for first time driver's licenses, personal identification cards, or election identification certificates will need to prove five items of fact to their state driver's license office: full legal name, birth date, citizenship or immigration status, social security number, and proof of permanent residence address.

Dorothy Cooper, Ruthelle Frank, and Thelma Mitchell typify what many seniors are experiencing. They were born at a time when there was not a lot of attention paid to these sort of identity documentation details, particularly for African-Americans. Many of them never had birth certificates to begin with, and if they did, they were incorrectly - their names were incorrectly put onto these documents. And if that's the case, then you're not going to get an ID - free or otherwise. They will not accept no birth certificate or discrepancies between your birth certificate and other forms of ID that you may have, like a Social Security card.

Title II of the Real ID law requires that first time and renewing driver's license, ID card, and "free" election ID card applicants must appear in person at their state's DMV and prove five items of fact by presenting:

  • State certified original or copy of a birth certificate (not just a hospital issued birth record), or
  • Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or
  • Certificate of Naturalization issued by DHS, or
  • Certificate of Citizenship
  • Social Security Card or other proof of social security number and
  • Two documents that show a principal residence address, such as a bank statement and a utility bill.
For cases where the current name and the name on the primary identity document(s) are different, first time and renewing applicants must also present:
  • Court ordered name change document, and/or
  • Certified original or copy of all marriage certificates, issued by the courts, and/or
  • Certified original or copy of all divorce decrees, issued by the courts.
In all cases, ID applicants must show a clear trail of name changes originating with the birth name to the current name. This requirement places a disproportionate burden on women who commonly take the last name of their husbands at the time of their marriage, and therefore must show their certified marriage certificate along with the other required ID. Women who have been married more than once must produce all marriage certificates and all divorce decrees.

In total, of the 50 U.S. states and six territories, 44 of them (41 states and three territories) have given DHS the green light that they are on board and working toward REAL ID compliance. Of the remaining nine states and three territories, three of those states have laws banning the state from compliance yet two of them are meeting REAL ID standards without using the REAL ID name.

The next stage of Real ID implementation requires all individuals under age 50, as of December 1, 2014, obtaining or renewing a driver's license, personal identification cards or election identification card complies with all of the REAL ID requirements, if the document is to be presented for official federal purposes such as boarding a commercial aircraft. The final stage requires all eligible individuals using a state-issued driver’s license or identification card for official federal purposes to be issued REAL ID-compliant licenses by December 1, 2017.

The Federal Real ID law has transformed state issued driver's licenses into a de facto national photo identity card that by December 2017 will be required to board commercially operated airline flights, conduct official business with federal agencies, apply for Social Security, and increasingly, to vote. Without that Real ID, they will be left without access to everything from food stamps to Medicare to Social Security to winter heating assistance to the voting booth, and more.


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