Voter ID: A poll tax on Aunt Bee
“How hard can it be to get a photo ID?” My neighbor asked this sincere question at a community picnic. Voters are being asked this fall to decide for or against: “Constitutional amendment to require voters to provide photo identification before voting in person.”
Aside from the absence of voter fraud to justify a photo ID requirement, that ballot language sounds straightforward. But suppose your Aunt Bee lives on the other side of the state, alone there ever since you and Opie moved away. She uses a walker to get around her home. Her driver license lapsed years ago. Most of her friends have passed away. She gets food delivered five days a week by meals-on-wheels, her major social contact. She does not own a computer. In the past, volunteers gave her a ride to her local polling place. It was difficult for her, but it was her duty and important, so she did it.
Now imagine that a strict voter photo ID amendment passes. To get that photo ID card, Aunt Bee must show a birth certificate, but she was born in another state 80 years ago when recording births was not standard procedure there. She does not know whether she has a birth certificate or how she would go about getting one. Even if she could get it, she might also have to track down her marriage certificate from the state where she got married, this to show why her last name differs from the last name on her birth certificate. Aunt Bee could find it also challenging to produce additional other documentation she would need to obtain a photo voter ID.
Aunt Bee would be even more discouraged if she knew about the costs of getting a state ID card. North Carolina currently charges $13 for a photo ID. The states of her birth and marriage would charge for producing and sending certificates for those events. Add the expense of hiring transportation to and from the DMV office and the cost would be $35-$100. Aunt Bee no longer works outside the home, so at least she would not have to bear the cost of taking unpaid time off work to go to the DMV office. Nevertheless, Aunt Bee barely squeezes by on her fixed income. For example, she has no idea how she will pay the deductible for the roof repair that she badly needs following recent storm damage. During the month that Aunt Bee is consumed with trying to get her voter ID, she will face difficult choices about paying for food, utility bills and co-pays for her prescriptions and other medical care. Aunt Bee would be hard pressed to pay even a modest sum, what amounts to a poll tax, to get a voter ID card. She should not have to do so.
Some of the problems shown in the scenario above might not occur, or the barriers for the Aunt Bees of North Carolina might be even worse than just illustrated. The fact is that we voters cannot know how restrictive the implementation details of the voter ID requirements will be. This is because, while not apparent from the ballot language this fall, the General Assembly wrote the amendment in a way that leaves important implementation features up to the General Assembly itself. According to impartial courts, this is the same body that has time and again legislated to wrongfully encumber the voting opportunities of population groups that it disfavors. Do you believe that they would do the right thing with such new additional authority over the voting process?
Most barriers to voting can be reversed by legislation. However, inserting a voter photo ID requirement into our state Constitution would make that barrier much harder to ever undo.
There are many Aunt Bees in North Carolina. According to the Budget and Tax Center, well over 200,000 registered voters do not have a DMV identification card. Older adults in North Carolina have worked mightily over many years to build our state. We should honor them by making it easier to vote, not harder.
Roger Manus is Director of the Senior Law Clinic at the Campbell University School of Law.
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