Saturday, 01 November 2014

Your name’s not down

Laws requiring photo ID could prevent homeless people from voting, says Maria Foscarinis

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As election season heats up, laws recently enacted in numerous states threaten to disenfranchise some 5 million eligible voters, including many who are poor and homeless.

The new laws require photo identification as a precondition to voting. Proponents argue they are needed to prevent fraud, and that state-issued photo ID is free. But studies show voter fraud is extremely rare and obtaining a state-issued ID can be complicated and expensive.

In Wisconsin, for example, getting a ‘free’ state-issued photo ID requires proving your name and date of birth; identity; citizenship or other appropriate immigration status; and residency. And acceptable proof is neither free nor easy for many to obtain. One of the ways to prove your name and date of birth is with a birth certificate. For those who don’t have one, ordering a birth certificate requires a fee of $20 (£12.40) or more.

Two of the following documents can also be used: a state-issued employee ID, a passport, a cheque book, a credit card, a health insurance card, a lease, a recent utility bill, or a recent traffic ticket. In other words, getting a ‘free’ ID requires having: a job, the possibility of international travel, a bank account, health care, housing, or access to a car.

Wisconsin is one of 44 US states that enacted or considered such laws over the past year. Some have been overturned, but many remain, making it difficult or impossible for many to vote this November. Without access to the ballot box, these Americans will be further marginalised.

Maria Foscarinis is a lawyer and founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

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