Advocates Work to Counter Voter ID Laws that Cripple Rural and Disenfranchised Voters
By Cynthia Yeldell Anderson
As the United States enters the 2020 presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voting advocates are working to counter voter identification laws that are increasingly used to suppress the minority vote.
Kat Calvin, founder and executive director of Spread the Vote, an organization that helps people obtain IDs, said the number of states that have voter identification requirements at the polls has increased from 21 to 36 since she began her organization in 2017. Seven of those states — including Tennessee and Mississippi — have strict photo ID laws, which require voters to have one of a limited variety of government-issued photo IDs. Obtaining these can be difficult if not impossible for people who live in rural or lower income communities.
“Its entire intent is voter suppression,” Calvin said. “People have said on video that for low-income Black and brown people, it’s an attempt to suppress the vote.”
Calvin’s organization, Spread the Vote assists voters in obtaining IDs by paying fees, helping them obtain necessary documents, providing transportation and helping them navigate what can be a complex system. Approximately 57 percent of Spread the Vote’s clients don’t have birth certificates. Many don’t have the means to pay fees which can be up to $40, Calvin said.
According to the ACLU, minority voters disproportionately lack identification. Nationally, up to 25 percent of African-American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8 percent of whites.
While supporters of strict voter ID laws argue that obtaining an ID is not difficult, research shows otherwise. For example, of the 47 driver’s license stations listed on the Mississippi Department of Public Safety’s website, nearly a third of them were listed as closed or temporarily closed. This requires residents in many of the state’s low-income areas to travel 20 miles or more to another town just to get an ID.
“People in cities may think, ‘I pass three DMVs [Division of Motor Vehicles] on my way to work,’ but in most of America, they are not that plentiful,” said Calvin, noting that the state of West Virginia has only seven driver’s license stations in the entire state.
Monica Thompkins, who lives in a rural Mississippi town outside of Clarksdale, visited seven different DMVs in Mississippi over the course of two months in late 2019 in an attempt to obtain a driver’s license for her teenage son. Thompkins, who works full time, attempted to find a DMV where she could get service in the afternoon. However, at most of the Mississippi DMV locations Thompkins visited including —Southaven, Nesbit and Clarksdale — she found dozens of people in line ahead of her when she arrived, making same-day service virtually impossible.
“You have to take a number and if they close at 4 or 5 o’clock, there might be 50 people ahead of you,” Thompkins said. “It’s horrible. It’s like they don’t value your time, but you have to take the time to drive there.”
When Thompkins took a day off to drive more than two hours from her home, she found that DMV locations in Greenville and Cleveland, Miss., were closed and another location in Indianola was overcrowded. She finally was able to get her son’s license at a DMV in Greenwood, Miss., a 140-mile drive from her home.
“It’s really bad in the Delta towns — Greenville, Cleveland and Indianola; that’s a bad situation,” said Thompkins. She believes the process will deter many people from getting IDs and ultimately from voting. “You are talking about getting an ID, but there are no jobs, and no hope for getting jobs,” Thompkins said. “People aren’t going to stand in line for an ID.”
Mississippi is one of the states with strict voter ID laws. In addition to its decreasing number of DMVs in recent years, Mississippi requires voters to visit driver’s license stations on days of the week according to the first letter of their last name. Mondays are reserved for last names ending in A-E, Tuesdays F-L, Wednesdays (renewals and duplicates), Thursdays M-S, and Fridays T-Z.
“We are asking them to gather a file folder full of documents, collect enough money and find their way to a DMV, and that’s really hard,” Calvin said.
Jonathan Harrison of Virginia said he would have given up on the idea of obtaining an ID if Spread the Vote had not stepped in to assist him. Originally from Pennsylvania, Harrison couldn’t get a Virginia license without his social security card, which he didn’t have.
“I needed my social security card to send for my license, and vice versa, I needed my license to get an ID. It was literally impossible,” Harrison said. “I’m not good with all that stuff.”
Harrison said Spread the Vote helped him obtain both his driver’s license and social security card, and covered all of his fees.
Spread the Vote has helped an estimated 5,000 people obtain ID, but Calvin said the need is much greater. An estimated 21 million eligible voters don’t have IDs, she added. Among them are the millions of people being released from prison (many for petty crimes for which they couldn’t afford bail) who are now re-entering the population due to early release because of COVID-19.
“Photo ID laws are hard to fight, so I decided to help people get IDs,” Calvin said.
Anyone who wants to partner with Spread the Vote to help stop voter suppression should contact Spread the Vote at https://www.spreadthevote.org/volunteer