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Elders and Voter ID Laws

category_bug_politics.gif In Saturday's special edition of Interesting Stuff, I mentioned voter ID laws that are being used in an increasing number of states to suppress certain kinds of voters by requiring a government-issued photo ID to be presented at polling stations to receive a ballot.

Reader Diana Rothberg left a note stating that she doesn't see what's wrong with voter ID laws:

“I've never understood why requiring ID for voting is discriminatory. We need ID to cash a check, get on an airplane, get senior prices at the movies. Could you please explain this?”

I left a short explanation for Diana in the comments, but today I want to expand on it both as a political tool and as it relates to elders.

For most voters, the acceptable ID to vote is a drivers license, but many people do not drive. Another reader, Ellyn, pointed out that many states issue non-driver ID cards which are widely accepted for check cashing, airline security and senior discounts, among other activities.

(I must note that I have never been asked to prove I'm old enough for a senior discount; they just look at me and know.)

This is all well and good. The difficulty arises when the ID is required to vote because it then becomes a de facto poll tax. After the 15th Amendment to the Constitution gave voting rights to people of all races, some states instituted poll taxes and other restrictions designed to prevent blacks from voting.

This intent was made obvious when some of those states exempted citizens who had voted in previous elections (all white, of course) from the poll tax.

In 1964, passage of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution abolished the use of any kind of tax as a pre-condition for voting in federal elections. It states:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.”

Then in 1966, in a case titled Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court extended the prohibition on poll taxes to state elections. The Constitution and the law are abundantly clear: no tax or fee may be imposed as a condition for voting in any election.

As with drivers licenses, states charge a fee to issue a non-driver photo ID. A random check of about a dozen states shows that fees range from as little as $5 in Maine and Iowa to $44.50 in Oregon. Some states have a sliding scale of fees that increases depending on the number of years for which the ID is valid.

Supporters of voter ID laws, which have been instigated by Republicans, maintain that they are important to help reduce voter fraud. Please. The greater problem is getting people to vote at all and the only significant voter fraud I can recall in recent times took place in Florida in 2000 and it was not about fraudulent votes. From NPR:

”Doug Chapin, an election expert with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, says one problem with the current debate is that there's little data to back up either side.

“Chapin says there's not only no evidence of widespread fraud, but 'you really haven't seen, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, a whole lot of evidence that there are large numbers of people who are registered to vote, or want to register to vote, and don't have the kind of ID that would be required.'”

It may be true, as Chapin says, that it is not a matter of people lacking the required kind of ID to obtain a non-driver photo ID (others disagree with him), but he omits the point about the de facto poll tax and the extra hardship for elders.

All the states I checked require an in-person visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain a non-driver ID. For many elders, this can be an almost insurmountable problem. One, if they want a non-driver ID, they don't drive. Two, a larger proportion of elders than young people have difficulty getting around easily on public transportation (or at all) and some do not have anyone to call on for help.

Here is another comment from Trish Corl:

”I drove my 91 year old mom to the DMV (CA) this past May, when her driver's license expired, to convert her over to a Senior Photo ID. She can no longer drive and lives in an assisted living community. If not for me, her fantastic Designated Daughter (!), she would have no "government issued" ID and no way to get one.

“It was a real challenge for my mom to go through this process, even with my total support and companionship. She is mentally fine, but physically frail, and the process was such a long, complicated slog.

"It's so easy to assume that these things are accessible for seniors, when the reality is quite different.”

Due to direct deposit (which becomes a requirement for all Social Security recipients next year), there is little reason for elders to cash a check anymore. Many people do not fly or visit foreign countries and they get senior discounts the same way I do so the fee becomes a de facto poll tax.

The trajectory of voter ID laws are not on elders' side.

In a 6-3 decision in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a voter ID law in an Indiana case. "We cannot conclude that the statute imposes 'excessively burdensome requirements' on any class of voters," said Justice John Paul Stevens writing for the majority.

In his dissent, Justice David Souter wrote that Indiana's voter ID law "threatens to impose nontrivial burdens on the voting rights of tens of thousands of the state's citizens."

For many elders, the burden is indeed nontrivial both physically and financially. Remember that the average monthly Social Security payment is $1100 – less than $275 a week - which accounts for 90 percentage of the income of a large percentage of elders and half the income for millions more.

Another reader, Margie, left this comment on Saturday's post:

”I haven't had a car since 2004. I've kept up my driver's license because - well, because I keep thinking things will get better. But the last time it came up for renewal this past April, the fee was $32 here in California. That's a lot to me now, and it gave me pause. I did renew the license, but at the expense of several weeks' worth of decent groceries.

“Yes, this systematic disenfranchisement is real, it is effective, and it is evil.”

Legal challenges to voter ID laws in several states are wending their way through the court system. Given the tenor of our times and the makeup of the current Supreme Court, I don't have a lot of hope for their success.

All hail the return of the poll tax and the disenfranshisement of elders (among others).

UPDATE: Given a couple of emails I've received this morning (I do wish you would post your thoughts as comments), I did not make myself clear in this post. So let me try again:

Millions of people - some young, many old - who do not drive or do not travel by air have no reason to maintain a drivers license or to obtain a non-driver ID except, due to voter ID laws, to vote. That makes the fee for these documents a de facto poll tax and disenfranchises those who cannot get to a DMV.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: The Perfect Wish


Thanks for this clear explanation of something that I've had trouble understanding. It's ironic that those who yell the loudest about restrictions in individual freedoms often are the most enthusiastic backers of them.

Even before Oregon went to mail-in ballots, my mom got an absentee ballot and voted from her home because she didn't see at all well (macular degeneration) and she could take time with magnifying glass and be sure she had it marked correctly. Obviously it now is no problem for any elder in Oregon but where it is, I do recommend the mail in as it avoids a lot of problems and gets you just as valid a vote. I didn't originally vote to go to all mail voting (we did it in Oregon with a ballot measure) but I am a fan now as it saves me a lot of time. I do miss seeing the elder ladies who ran the voting but this is a fast method to be sure every legal voter and citizen can exercise their right.

Only two states, Oregon and Washington conduct elections via postal mail and Washington only partially.

A few other states are experimenting with vote-by-mail (Maine is one) but they are a long way from making it law.

My mother applied for absentee ballots which then allowed her always to receive hers by mail before the law changed in Oregon. I would guess other states have that capability. It helped her a lot.

We have 'vote by mail' in Arizona, but some states do not. If voting is heavy a frail elder would not be able to stand in line long enough to vote.

I read that 'vote by mail' was going to repealed in one state. I'm sorry that I can't remember which state, but think it might be Alabama. The intent is obvious.

The more difficult they make voting to be for the poor and elders the better for the Republican party so guess who is behind this sneaky disenfranchisement?

Wisconsin just instituted a voter ID requirement. Part of the law is that non-drivers can get their state ID, which normally costs $28 for 7 or 8 years, for free if they check a box that they need it for voting. However, to get it the first time, they also have to provide proof of citizenship, meaning a birth certificate in most cases, and for some of the older people I know, that will be costly if they can't find their original or certified copy. Motor Vehicle Department offices will have to add extra hours to allow for more people to get these ID's. The cost for all this comes out high for the possible one or two illegal votes that might have occurred.

Similar to Wisconsin, Kansas has just instituted a voter ID requirement, with the offer of free state ID to those who need it. I thought that we didn't need the expense of this law, just now, and I don't really think that voter fraud is much of an issue in Kansas; but, in theory, I do not oppose requiring identification of anyone who wishes to exercise the privileges/duties of citizenship.

I do understand the difficulty that some elders may have in getting ID and in voting; but, since elders have generally voted more conservatively than not (am I wrong on this?), I think thinning out the ranks of elder voters (at least for the next few years) will favor the progressives/liberals.

My mom, when she lost her driver's license due to vision, had to get an extra ID anyway to use her credit cards many places. I'd do that if I lost my driver's license irrespective of whether needed for voting. We also have to have a Passport to go to Canada (likewise Mexico) these days and it'd work also for voting, I would assume

Good news about the states that giving free IDs to those who need it. But, Cop Car, I'm surprised at the rest of your comment.

The U.S. is still nominally a democracy with Constitutional underpinnings that grant all citizens the right to vote. Any legislation or workaround that denies particular groups of citizens that right weakens the Constitution and everyone's rights. What's next? Impossible-to-pass tests as during Jim Crow?

This is more than a convenience question; it is a Constitutional one.

I know that in some states, Wisconsin for one, they are not allowing student photo IDs for voting, thereby nixing the student vote as well.

If someone has a great deal of difficulty getting a drivers license renewal, or state ID. They will have just as much difficulty getting to the voting place. Absentee ballots are probably the anwer. bkj

Thank you for this post, Ronni. This is a problem that I would never have thought of on my own. Some groups, such as ethnic groups, genders, or sexual orientations, are well aware that they are members of a minority, and are up in arms at any attempt to keep them down because of it. On the other hand, elders and the poor are in a specific situation at this point in their lives, but may not see themselves as members of a group that could be disenfranchised.

I know that it is difficult for many citizens to get a government ID when rules change. I have a friend born in Alaska, where the birth certificate originally issued to him wasn't official enough (as Alaska didn't put an official seal on certificates in the year he was born). Another friend was born on an Iroquois reservation, which did not issue birth certificates at all. Both had to spend months jumping through hoops to get a birth certificate the DMV would accept, before they could get an ID.

Mail-in ballots are a great help for elders (and are an option in Colorado, where I live), but I can see one problem even they don't solve: A surprisingly large number of citizens have no mailing address. Many are actually homeless and living on the street, but many more (especially the elderly and poor) stay short-term with friends or relatives, or move from motel to shelter to motel. These people also need to be able to vote, make their voices heard, and change their situations.

What is the solution? I don't know how to solve all of these problems. Awareness helps. I know that some nonprofits help elders and other people with limited mobility to get the documents they need when ID laws go into effect. Helping each other is a start.

We had a huge voter registration education movement during the 1960s in the South to help teach black (and white) poor to prepare to register to vote.

Guess we'll have to start a new push to help them now to get an ID. I volunteer to pick up those who need IDs and help them get whatever money, paperwork, etc they will need to get an ID. Anybody care to join me?

I'm going to call our local senior center and tell them I can help with that. Guess I'll call a few Social Workers and see if they know of some I can help. And I'm 74 and dirt poor myself ... but I'm sure I'll be able to find some well-to-do donors to help with this sort of thing. There are usually a few around if you look.

In West Virginia where I was born and grew up -- and learned first-hand about the "dirty tricks" of politics in one of its birthplaces, we did not (and probably still don't) require an ID to vote. But we had a lot of what we called the "RIP Vote" every election. That was what we called the truckloads of poor people that the local "political mafia" brought in from Pennsylvania to vote for deceased voters at $5 and a half-pint of whiskey a head. It worked for that bunch of devoted professional politicians for years -- and I'll bet it still does.

The "driving" discrimination factor is gigantic. As Trish noted above, even the bureaucratic loopholes of the presumably "equal" non-drivers' state ID card can be fierce. We might start with the fact that the DMV itself is often located in places only reachable with a car!

But wait, that's not all. For awhile, my state was demanding an iron-clad "chain of identity" for all applicants for state ID--a paper trail of You, the Citizen, from birth through every marriage, divorce, move, etc., from birth to the present. This, of course, led to immediate massive discrimination against women, who often change their names with marriage, divorce, and remarriage. (Good luck finding that yellowing certificate from your teenage first marriage 40 years ago). Luckily, they've backed off somewhat when the size of the problem became clear, but we can't depend on officials to see sense. Especially, as in the case of voter ID, they don't want to.

It's not bad enough, apparently, that about 70% of the housing in the US functionally discriminates against non-drivers. Even if you squeeze into the 30% or so near stores or transit, you still can't fly and, if these people have their way, you won't even be able to vote.

Able-bodied upper middle class people in the prime of life have no idea about the existence of Non-Driving America and and its many, many limits. But if they live long enough or develop a major disability--aha! Welcome to our world.

Nicely articulated Ronni. You're spot on about the link between IDs being required and the similarity of effects between it and a poll tax.

Here in North Carolina the GOP has taken over the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, and one of the first things they did was to introduce Voter ID legislation. We have a wonderful woman governor, Bev Perdue, who has vetoed this bill, and it's doubtful that her veto can be overridden. So we escape, perhaps, this time.

When the subject of Voter ID laws comes up I often think of the really old African-Americans I watched come to the polls to vote for our black president. They were so proud. It hasn't been so long since they couldn't vote at all. There is no question that the GOP wants to hold down black voter participation with this law. Shame on them!

Potential voter discrimination is definitely an important issue, as my African-American husband (age 81) would corroborate. However, at this point I'm thoroughly disgusted with Congress. A pox on both their houses! The Republican newbies are acting like schoolyard bullies by holding the entire country hostage to their unrealistic ideology. These are the guys who want to do away with entitlements, and my question is who entitled them to speak for me, anyway?

Many Congress members, especially Republicans, are independently wealthy, so why should they care what happens to REAL PEOPLE? It's wonderful that they care about their kids and grandkids (who will inherit their wealth), but what about the millions of ordinary Americans of all ages trying to survive in the here and now? What about unemployment? What about food inspection? What about education? All they care about is cuts, cuts and more cuts--as long as they hit only the middle and working classes.

At this point I'm so angry that I'm glad I don't have to vote for ANYONE!

Californians have a choice to vote in person early at a few locations (none near to me that I've ever gone to,) vote absentee, or go to polls election day. I still prefer voting in person, though my husband chose using the absentee ballot for many years.

With the U.S.Postal Service experiencing decline, closing offices, talk of cutting back on deliveries, I can imagine it will eventually go the way of the Pony Express. By that time, we'll all probably be voting electronically from wherever we are. Clearly "the great electronic divide" will continue to impact the have-nots.

Meanwhile, I'm definitely opposed to voter I.D. laws as you describe since I think the public reasons given to justify enacting them hides an ulterior motive.

I hope Cop Car's final comment wasn't meant to be taken seriously. Writing some types of humor, and even about other topics, on the Internet can be perilous, sometimes resulting in readers misinterpretation.

In Minnesota, there was a big push for Voter ID as well. There is a relatively large voter turnout here and miniscule verified fraud.
My son works for a state health insurance department. There are new regulations requiring proof of citizenship for benefits. They have been stymied by cases where someone is in a nursing facility, with no family involved. The elderly person may have been born at home, with no birth records. Many of the women did not work outside the home, so no work or social security records except via their husband. They have had to figure out ways around it to ensure these folks are not thrown out to the curb.
The issue of state id cards is different for each state, but here https://dps.mn.gov/divisions/dvs/forms-documents/documents/identificationrequirements_english.pdf
is the document requirement list to obtain a state id in our state. It takes time and money and either someone to assist a disabled or elderly person, or an elder with savvy, stamina, money and transportation. Each certified copy of something on those lists costs at least $10. The fees for such things are rising as funding for the departments is dwindling.

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