Modern Voter Suppression: A Voter Registration Adventure

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English: map of voter id laws for 2008 election

English: map of voter id laws for 2008 election indicating areas of voter suppression (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a friend of the family staying at our house. He’s nineteen years old, and has never had photo ID. His mother has severe chronic health issues and his younger brother and sister are both disabled, his sister severely. His stepfather works full time and tries to hold everything together while also being an activist for his union. They don’t have a dime to spare, nor do they have a car or the time to run around and get all the things done that need to be done to get a photo ID (which is required in Missouri to vote).

I should add at this point that our friend is legally disabled, though he appears to be overcoming his disability and may no longer meet that category within the year. He gets a check every month, which he contributes to his family for their upkeep. His “rent” at my house is to clean my kitchen every day. Because he “gets a check” (which is actually a debit card) he has never held a job and has never had a pressing (immediate) need for a photo ID before. Now he’s job hunting and wants to vote in November.

I have money, a car, and on Monday, I had time. So we tried to get it done. We left the house at 11 am after a morning cleaning the house together. First stop, county health department to pick up his birth certificate. Which requires a photo ID. He and my younger son Overthinker had spent most of the last week tracking down his high school ID from a year ago. I called and verified it would be good enough, and with a bit of reluctance, the person on the other end said it would be.

The office was quiet and efficient, and in less than a half an hour (plus a week of brainstorming and tracking down the photo ID) he had his birth certificate, with a receipt stub that proved his current address (my house). I should note that the health department is a mile from my house and about three blocks from my office. So again, I had a car, and I had enough gas to get where I needed to go. Big pluses for me. The public health office in my county is on a bus line, which runs once an hour, but my home is not.

Next stop, the Social Security office, to replace his Social Security card which a family member had misplaced. After a spiel about not having weapons in the building (we didn’t) and listening to the man next to us in line loudly complain about his ten minute wait and the necessity to be in a government building and (of course) the pending doom of the Social Security system, we were called to the front of the room. The person at the window told us we could not get a new card because a school ID (public school, government issued) is not sufficient to obtain a card. Strike one. This office was about three miles down the road from the public health office. Also on a bus line with an hourly schedule.

Next stop was my friend’s mother’s home, to see if she could find a copy of his social security card. She wasn’t home. My friend doesn’t actually have service on his phone, but uses an app that works with wireless internet to make phone calls (very common among people under the poverty line). I turned on my wireless hotspot on my phone, and tried to find her. After about a half hour (and two more of my own personal errands) we found her and she was heading back home, where she was able to find a copy of my friend’s Social Security card.

She had tried before to use it and my friend’s birth certificate to get him a a photo ID (over a year ago) and had been turned away. But again, I had gas and a car and time, so on we trudged to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Again on a (different) bus line, another three miles from my friend’s mother’s home. Another ten minute wait (this was unusual – I was there three weeks ago, and my wait was closer to an hour) and then we were told we needed three things to get a photo ID. Proof of citizenship (birth certificate was fine), proof of current address (I thought the stub from the birth certificate would work) and social security number. In other words, if he had it memorized, it would have been fine (we’re working on that).

Turns out, the proof of citizenship and proof of address cannot be on the same document. Argh. We were all set to leave when the supervisor heard us and realized he lived with me. She asked me for my personal property information, looked it up on the county website, and said that it was good enough (I did not have to show any proof of who I was. Please note that I am white and look middle class, and my family friend is black).

In one fell swoop, my friend got his photo ID and was registered to vote using my address. He also registered for the draft. It was 2 p.m. The total cost for everything was $26 dollars. It would have been more had we had to go back to get his Social Security card (which we’ll do next week). Add in about five bucks worth of gas, and four hours of our time.

Folks, I’m here to tell you that without my assistance, my friend would not have been able to register to vote (or get a photo ID for job hunting purposes) for another year or more. His family has zero resources to help him. None of his friends have the time, gas money, or know-how to navigate the three separate government offices he had to visit to get his photo ID. Most people aren’t aware that in Missouri you can register to vote at the DMV.

If he had taken the bus, our half day trek would have taken a minimum of eight hours.  If he had not had someone knowledgeable enough to ask the right questions and “presentable” (I use that word advisedly) enough to elicit help from the bureaucrats, it might have taken weeks.  It actually did take weeks to do the prep work and schedule a time when I had the day available. If I had not been willing and able to pay for the fees, it might have taken his family months to rob from food, medications, utilities, and rent to come up with the money.

This is what the voter photo ID laws do. This is one young man, African American, artistic and intelligent, a high school graduate with plans to start job hunting this week, no criminal record and frankly a more decent kid than most, would not have been able to vote this fall if I hadn’t taken a full half day to make it happen. There are tens or hundreds of thousands of people in his shoes. In contrast, in the last decade, only four instances of confirmed in-person voter registration fraud have been reported.

This is what voter suppression looks like in the twenty first century. It matters. In the next week or so, I’ll be writing another post on what to do about it when you are helping people vote. I am actively seeking ideas, so please leave yours in the comments.

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