Last year, Darlene Palmer was told that a Florida driver’s license would cost her $156 because her ex-husband hadn’t taken her off of his car insurance. For a year, Palmer has gone without a valid government-issued photo ID. Thomas Casey is also a Floridian who has fallen on hard times, and when it came time to renew his driver’s license he could not afford the $31 fee.
Palmer and Casey represent the alarmingly large population of undocumented American citizens who do not have a government-issued ID.
Twenty-one million Americans, and over 10 percent of eligible voters, find themselves in the same position as Palmer and Casey, and sadly there is no national government program to help them obtain IDs. A lack of ID limits housing and employment opportunities, but in states like Florida with voter ID laws, it also takes away your right to vote. Americans like Palmer and Casey find themselves politically and economically disenfranchised.
Following the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby Co. v. Holder and the rise of voter ID laws all across the country, progressive groups have mounted successive legal challenges to stop the spread of voter ID laws. Legal challenges are liberals’ first instinct going back to Brown v. Board or before. They might prove fruitful in the long term, depending on how successful Republicans are at stacking the courts. But in the short term, 21 million Americans need government IDs.
Spread the Vote has taken another approach to the voter ID issue, and instead has chosen to help people like Palmer and Casey get IDs. It is a relatively small, grassroots organization with about $500,000 in funding and presently, it is in five states: Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
By 2020 they intend to be in all 20 states with voter ID laws and to have tripled their funds. Right now, the group’s funding comes from New Media Ventures—an investor and funder of media and tech startups that promote progressive change—various foundations including The Cedar Tree Foundation, and many small donations. It’s good to see that some liberal foundations and groups recognize that going through the courts isn’t the only remedy here.
Spread the Vote started with the goal of getting people voter ID cards, but they soon realized that the requirements for a voter ID in most states were the same as those for a driver’s or a “walker’s” license. With a driver’s or a walker’s license you can also vote in states with voter ID laws, so Spread the Vote shifted focus to obtaining these licenses. “You need an ID to vote one day a year, but you also need it the other 364 days of the year to have a life. And you’re more likely to vote, if you’re able to get a job, and housing,” said Kat Calvin, the founder of Spread the Vote, to The Daily Beast.
However, obtaining IDs for millions of Americans remains an incredibly slow and complicated process filled with misinformation. “It is extremely difficult to get people IDs and it takes an average of 3-4 weeks to get someone an ID,” Calvin told The Daily Beast. In a little over a year, Spread the Vote has obtained hundreds of IDs, with hundreds more in the pipeline.
Obtaining an ID normally requires a birth certificate, Social Security card, and proof of residence, and rounding up these documents can be time consuming and costly. Most of Spread the Vote’s clients, 57 percent, don’t have a birth certificate, and there are countless ways people can lose their documents. Many of Spread the Vote’s Texas clients had their documents destroyed in the floods from Hurricane Harvey. Many of their elderly clients were born during Jim Crow and were not issued a birth certificate. And it is especially difficult for Americans without stable housing to keep their documents and prove their place of residence.
Calvin argues that voter ID laws represent a modern-day poll tax considering the cost and effort required to obtain a license to vote, and their capacity to deprive Americans of their voting rights. States with voter ID laws have attempted to circumvent the 24th Amendment’s ban on poll taxes by making the licenses “free,” while ignoring the cost of the documentation.
One-third of Spread the Vote’s clients have voted before, and had become disenfranchised due to new voter ID laws. The majority of its clients will be first time voters. Also, 51 percent of their clients are African American, and 33 percent are white. Palmer and Casey are both white.
Compared to many of its other clients, Palmer’s and Casey’s situations were fairly straight forward since they already had their documents.
Casey simply needed the money for the renewal. He’s currently out of work, and he knows that without a driver’s license he’d have less of a chance of getting a job. However, his license won’t allow him to vote this year because four years ago he was convicted of a third-degree felony—serving only four months in the local jail—but in addition to voter ID laws, Florida has arguably the most severe felon voting restrictions in the country. And unless Amendment 4 passes this year, Casey may never be allowed to vote. Casey told The Daily Beast that he looks forward to the day that he can vote, so that he can get these “crooks” out of office.
For Palmer, Spread the Vote volunteer Daphne George contacted the DMV and set up an appointment to pay her $156 fine, yet when they arrived they were told that she did not need to pay any fine, and merely needed to renew her license. She’d gone a year without a license due to an unknown clerical error, and because of Florida’s voter ID law, this mistake could have also taken her voting rights away. Palmer now plans to vote for the first time this year. Palmer affectionately calls George her sister for helping her get her driver’s license and showing her how to vote.
“She’s a blessing. I wish they had more people like her,” said Palmer to The Daily Beast.
Palmer’s correct. It would be amazing if America had more people actively working to politically and economically enfranchise our 21 million undocumented Americans without ID, but we know that the Republican Party has no desire to fund these programs. At least we have people and organizations like Spread the Vote who work to protect our basic democratic freedoms despite the countless governmental obstacles put in our way. Hopefully democracy defeats corruption and disenfranchisement in the midterms.