It started as just another Saturday morning. My wife and I were driving to the DMV to have her driver’s license renewed. She had actually gone to renew in July, but because she didn’t have a birth certificate, she was given a temporary license while her home state sent it to her. She was aware that our state’s laws had changed and we needed more documents to renew, but as we arrived at the DMV, we would see just how far the rabbit hole went.
After having to go back to the house to retrieve her Social Security card, my wife got a number and waited in the lobby to finally get her driver’s license. When her number came up, she went to her assigned window and was promptly told by the clerk that she didn’t have all her necessary documents together.
Mind you, she had already brought her birth certificate, Social Security card, several bills, and her passport (not to mention her previous license.) The clerk told my wife that she needed to provide a copy of her marriage license as proof of a name change. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back; my wife railed at the clerk about the unfairness of the new license law declaring it discriminatory and a violation of civil rights. Unfortunately, she needed the license in order to drive, so we headed back to the house one more time to finally retrieve the last document she needed to get her license.
I have to say that my experience in license renewal earlier this year was rather complicated as well. I also had to provide a copy of my birth certificate for my license, but unlike my wife I was able to drive back to the town where I was born to buy a copy of the document. When I got there, I learned that I could have stayed home and picked it up in my home county; the state of Georgia allows residents to do this as long as they were born in-state. Unfortunately, I found this out only after traveling 120 miles.
Why is all of this important? It came to my wife and I as we were making the trip back to the DMV for the third time. The problem with these “secure IDs” was twofold. First was the matter of the documents that the state required. It seems discriminatory to have a woman show additional documents if she has been married just to prove her name change is legal. In addition, there is the fact that so many times people have gone to the DMV to renew their license under the new rules. My wife and I are literate, educated, and overall rather well-informed; nonetheless, we spent considerable time, gas, and emotional distress in the process of gathering all the documents we needed. I can only imagine the battle it would have been if we were poor, elderly, or otherwise had no reliable internet access.
The other issue with these new rules is its connection to the drive to require these licenses (or a similar ID card) for voting. It’s been no secret that Republicans have been pushing voter ID laws for years, ostensibly to stem voter fraud at the ballot box. (SIDEBAR: can we really call it the “ballot box” anymore when most precincts use a touchscreen booth now?) It is also no secret that the GOP has passed these laws with the actual aim of stemming participation amongst women, the poor and minorities, and by way of extension the Democratic party. We have all seen the footage of Pennsylvania state representative Mike Turzai bragging about how Voter ID would deliver his state to Mitt Romney in November. The laws have become a new kind of “poll tax” to weed out the undesirables from the voting rolls and achieve the “permanent Republican majority” that Karl Rove spoke of many years ago.
In all the focus on the application of these laws in the “battleground” states, however, there has been virtually no focus on the effect these laws have in supposedly safe states on the political map. Even in solid red states like Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas, there are pools of progressives and liberals working hard to bring more equitable representation at a local and state level. These efforts can only be hampered if senior citizens have to navigate a maze of bureaucracy to receive an ID card. Even with those states offering “free” ID cards for voting, the hurdles set up can mean that a potential voter working at near minimum wage must sacrifice much-needed work time and money in order to find the documents, travel to the DMV and wait to have their ID made. None of this can be seen as a coincidence; in a choice between feeding your family and voting with a card that is unusable anywhere else, it may be more affordable short-term for the working poor to simply not vote. Unfortunately, this is not an accidental side effect of Voter ID laws.
A few days before last week, I took my son to visit the Georgia state capitol building. We browsed through the portraits of the past governors and notables and came across the portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. hanging in the 2nd floor hall. This was the one my son was most excited about and as I think about how enthusiastically he spoke about MLK, I wonder how the good Reverend would have handled these laws and their application.