Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

(Special to The Root) — A spate of photo-ID laws passed by right-wing legislatures in the past few years is threatening the ability of even registered voters to cast their ballots. Many people think, "What's the big deal? Everybody has ID." Well, it's not that simple.  


New laws that have strict requirements for state-issued photo ID disproportionately affect blacks, Latinos, the elderly, the young and the disabled — demographics that turned out in record numbers in 2008 and overwhelmingly voted Democratic. For many people, the barriers are almost insurmountable. Elderly African Americans born during the era of segregation, for example, were often born at home and not issued the birth certificates now required in most states to get a state-issued photo ID. In Texas 600,000 registered voters lack the required state-issued photo ID to vote. In the United States as a whole, 21 million Americans don't have state-issued photo ID.

The voter-ID proposals in 38 states are all patterned on a template developed by the right-wing group ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), which is funded by conservative activists and oil billionaires David and Charles Koch, who have backed an agenda of resegregating schools, eliminating environmental safeguards and other right-wing policies.


Proponents say that voter photo ID is necessary to prevent fraud, but studies suggest that voter fraud is not a problem (pdf) at all. The Bush administration, despite a five-year investigation, could find no instances (pdf) of voter impersonation fraud.

Hundreds of thousands of brave Americans marched and died for the right to vote, and that fight continues today. We have defeated photo-ID laws in states like North Carolina, New Hampshire, Missouri and Minnesota, where the governors were compelled to veto the laws but where right-wing proponents are relentlessly trying to pass them again. In Ohio progressive groups banded together to place a repeal of the voter-suppression laws on the ballot. Advancement Project has filed lawsuits against these laws in several states and won some victories stalling the laws' implementation.

But if you live in a state where the new state photo-ID restrictions are in effect, here's what you need to know to safeguard your right to vote.

1. Federal law requires first-time voters to present one of many forms of ID before voting. Although certain forms of ID — such as a utility bill, bank statement or government check — are sufficient to prove your identity under federal law, they are considered invalid according to state photo-ID laws.


3. Everything must match. If there are differences between the names on your birth certificate and other forms of identification because of marriage, a misspelling, a typo or a missing middle name, for example, your birth certificate may not be enough. If you are using a married name, you will also need an official marriage certificate. If you've legally changed your name, you'll need those court records.

4. A veteran ID, student ID, expired passport, expired driver's license or photo ID from another state are not acceptable ID for voting in most states that have implemented photo-ID restrictions.

5. State photo-ID laws permit voters to obtain a photo ID free of charge — even if there is normally a fee — if they declare it is to be used for the purpose of voting. However, you have to pay for the underlying documents proving identity, residency and legal presence. In some states, you need a state photo ID to get a copy of your birth certificate, but you need the birth certificate to get the state photo ID. It's a catch-22.


6. Obtaining a state-issued photo ID usually involves a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. DMVs have been closed or limited to restricted hours in some states because of budget cuts, so make sure you check the DMV hours before you go. In many states, the DMV closures are disproportionately in communities of color.

7. Most important, don't give up. Your right to vote is precious and worth fighting for.


The following states have the strictest photo-ID laws: Pennsylvania, Texas, Indiana, Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina and Wisconsin. Some of these laws are currently being challenged in court by Advancement Project and others. If you're not sure about your state's requirements and want to keep updated on the threat to our right to vote, either sign up on our website or email us directly.

As the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1957, "So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others."


Judith Browne Dianis is one of the nation's foremost voting rights litigators and co-director of Advancement Project, a next generation civil rights group focused on issues of democracy and race. Follow her on Twitter.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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