Listen

For Older Voters, Getting The Right ID Can Be Especially Tough

Sep 7, 2018
Originally published on September 12, 2018 7:34 pm

Nearly three dozen states require voters to show identification at the polls. And almost half of those states want photo IDs. But there are millions of eligible voters who don't have them. A 2012 survey estimated that 7 percent of American adults lack a government-issued photo ID.

While some organizations have sued to overturn these laws, a nonprofit organization called Spread The Vote has taken a different tack: It helps people without IDs get them. And people over 50 years of age have presented some of their biggest challenges.

On a recent Tuesday morning in Austell, Ga., 53-year-old Pamela Moon tried to get a replacement for an ID she had lost. She worked with a Spread The Vote volunteer at the Sweetwater Mission. The group sends volunteers to the mission every other Tuesday, so that people who come for food and clothes can get help obtaining a Georgia ID at the same time.

Georgia is one of seven states with particularly strict voter ID requirements, which demand that voters show a government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot in person. Advocates for voter ID laws argue that showing identification at the polls reduces the incidence of voter fraud, although studies have repeatedly shown that in-person voter fraud is extremely rare.

Moon never had a driver's license. "I can drive," she said, but she never got her license, "'cause I can't afford to buy no car."

Bill Cox, a volunteer for Spread The Vote, told Moon she needs a birth certificate to get a replacement ID. She lost that, too, she said.

"We will help you get that," Cox told her. "We will pay for it."

This is a relief for Moon. In Georgia, the cost of a birth certificate and a photo ID is $57 and she lives mostly off her disability benefits. In fact, studies show that most people who lack official state IDs are low income and they have more urgent concerns than just voting.

Kat Calvin, the lawyer who founded Spread The Vote, says she learned this the hard way.

"We were going around canvassing with ...voter [registration] groups," said Calvin. They'd knock on doors or approach people at bus stops. But Calvin quickly figured out that the request seemed invasive and that they were "terrifying" people. "We realized, oh, nobody knows us, they don't trust us. So we realized this will only work if we work with someone that the people we're trying to reach trust."

The group also has chapters in Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, all states with voter ID laws and partners with organizations like Sweetwater Mission that deal with their clients' most basic human needs.

Calvin says "then when we talk to them about voting, they're going to be much more open to it."

Studies show that the people who are most likely to be prevented from voting by ID laws are not only low income, but also African-American or another racial minority. That has been true of the roughly 600 people that Spread The Vote has worked with.

Another statistic about the people the group has helped: About 40 percent of them are older than 50. Calvin said those voters often present special challenges.

"If you are elderly and you were born in a rural area [or] born during Jim Crow, you may not have ever gotten a birth certificate."

At Action Ministries in Atlanta, another Spread The Vote partner, volunteer Billie Remsa says she has mainly helped older people. And she says that one of the obstacles they face is that "most of them don't drive anymore. So taking four buses to go downtown so that they can get their picture ID, these require funds. They don't have them."

So in addition to paying for documents, the group drives people to where they need to go to get them.

Another complication that affects mainly older women is the name changes that come with marriage and divorce. Fallon McClure, head of Spread The Vote in Georgia, explains that the state wants documentation for every single name-changing event.

"We've had people that, for instance, didn't know where one of the divorces occurred," says McClure. "So how do you get a divorce decree if you don't even know what county to look for it in?"

Even things that people are sure they know about their history sometimes turn out to be wrong. Jimmy Lockett, 54, grew up in Louisiana and assumed he'd been born there.

"Come to find out I was born in Memphis," he said.

Lockett spent 30 years in Atlanta "running the streets," as he put it — panhandling, doing drugs and working odd jobs off the books. It was the only kind of work he could get without an ID. He hadn't had one in decades. Now he does.

It's hidden like a precious jewel deep in his pocket. He can barely dig it out to show it off. "I keep it so nice and tight and tucked away," said Lockett.

The ID has helped Lockett turn his life around. He now has a steady job and housing. He has been sober for more than six months and is looking forward to voting for the first time ever.

"I'm very proud of that," he said. "I used to be nothing. But now I got a goal, I got a goal to try to achieve."

He has a goal to continue changing his life. He also has a goal to vote and maybe help change the world just a little.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Nearly three dozen states require voters to show identification at the polls. Almost half of those states want photo IDs. But there are millions of eligible voters who don't have them. Some organizations sued to overturn these laws. We're going to hear about one that takes a different approach by helping people get the identification they need. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging. She reports that some of the most challenging cases have come from older adults.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL COX: So you need an ID, Pam?

PAMELA MOON: Yes, sir. I do.

COX: OK. So you don't have a Georgia driver's license?

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Bill Cox is helping 53-year-old Pamela Moon get a Georgia photo ID. He's a volunteer with a nonprofit organization called Spread The Vote that was founded just last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COX: Are you a U.S. citizen?

MOON: Yes, I am.

COX: You were born here in...

JAFFE: Spread The Vote has a table every other Tuesday at Sweetwater Mission in the town of Austell. So people who were there to get food and clothes, like Pamela Moon, can also apply for a state ID.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COX: Do you have a certified copy of your birth certificate?

MOON: I did, and I lost it.

COX: We will help you get that. We will pay for it once you get that.

JAFFE: That's good news for Moon. The cost of a birth certificate and an ID comes to $57 in Georgia. And she lives mostly on disability benefits. Research shows that most people without government IDs are low-income, so they have more urgent concerns than voting. Kat Calvin, the lawyer who founded Spread The Vote, says she learned this the hard way.

KAT CALVIN: We're going around canvassing with, like, voter reg groups, or just on our own or whatever and just...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

CALVIN: ...Do you have an ID? And (laughter) terrifying people.

JAFFE: Just knocking on the door.

CALVIN: Knocking on doors or stopping them at bus stops, just asking people if they had ID. And we realized, oh, nobody knows us. They don't trust us. So we realized this will only work if we work with someone that the people we're trying to reach trust.

JAFFE: So in the five states where Spread The Vote is active, they partner with organizations like Sweetwater Mission that deal with their clients' most basic human needs.

CALVIN: So then when we talk to them about voting, they're going to be much more open to it.

JAFFE: Studies also show that the people who are most likely to be prevented from voting by ID laws are racial minorities. That's been true of the roughly 600 people that Spread The Vote has worked with. One more statistic - about 40 percent of their clients are older than 50. Calvin says that can present special challenges.

CALVIN: If you are elderly and you were born in a rural area, born during Jim Crow, you may not have ever gotten a birth certificate.

JAFFE: At Action Ministries in Atlanta, Spread The Vote volunteer Billie Remsa says she's mainly helped older people. And their issues are different.

BILLIE REMSA: Most of them don't drive anymore. So taking four buses to go downtown so that they can get their picture ID, these require funds. They don't have them.

JAFFE: So Spread The Vote not only pays for the documents, they drive people where they need to go to get them. Another complication for older women is the name changes that come with marriage, divorce or remarriage. Fallon McClure, head of Spread The Vote in Georgia, explains that the state wants documentation for every single name-changing event.

FALLON MCCLURE: We've had people that, for instance, just didn't know where one of the divorces occurred. So how do you get a divorce (laughter) decree if you don't even know what county to look for it in?

JAFFE: Even things that older people are sure they know about their history sometimes turn out to be wrong. Fifty-four-year-old Jimmy Lockett grew up in Louisiana and assumed he'd been born there.

JIMMY LOCKETT: Come to find out I was born in Memphis.

JAFFE: In Tennessee. Lockett spent 30 years in Atlanta running the streets, as he puts it, panhandling, doing drugs and working odd jobs off the books. It was the only kind of work he could get without an ID. He hadn't had one in decades. Now, because of Spread The Vote, he does. It's hidden like a precious jewel deep in his pocket.

LOCKETT: I keep it so nice and tight and tucked away.

JAFFE: The ID has helped Lockett turn his life around. He now has a steady job. He has housing. He's also been sober for more than six months. And he's looking forward to being a first-time voter.

LOCKETT: I'm very proud of that. I used to been nothing, but now I got a goal. I got a goal to try to achieve.

JAFFE: A goal to continue changing his life and a goal to vote and maybe help change the world just a little. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NEW GARY BURTON QUARTET'S "SUNDAY'S UNCLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.