Please explain voter ID to this non-American like I'm a 12 year old
December 16, 2017 2:04 AM   Subscribe

After discovering Metafilter a few years ago I became increasingly interested in American social issues but there is still a lot of pretty basic stuff I do not fully understand. I have been watching a lot of liberal YouTube channels and political comedy and I recently came across one showing Bill O'R getting corrected live by his guests and it was very satisfying.

One item I did not understand was the issue of voter ID. The host kept saying requiring a voter to show an ID was not a big deal, the guest said it was, and it just left me confused.

Where I live, you are automatically registered to vote at your district of residence but then you also have to register your place of residence with the local government - not just to vote but as a civil obligation, and you are penalized for not being "registered". Elections happen on Sundays and so voting is relatively uncomplicated for most people.

I am looking for explanations of the voting barriers facing underprivileged people - I have been doing some googling but I would appreciate the kind folks of Metafilter explaining it to me because some of the blog / journal articles go above my head with their cultural references and my ignorance of much of the background.

I would love to hear some personal stories / examples as well as maybe blog links? Bonus points for some optimistic ones.
posted by M. to Law & Government (49 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There are a few compounding problems that make this a massive issue:

- having a permanent address and having proof of that address matched with your name can be a challenge for many people who are not homeowners on a mortgage or renters on a lease: homeless people, students, folks who have married or affirmed their gender and changed their name, people living with a relative, people who have recently moved, people without bank accounts, people in institutional or transitional housing, people in prisons or jails, people who are somewhat itinerant (like some retirees who move to warmer climes in winter)'s many millions of people, not just a handful

- the requirement in many places to travel during business hours to a main center of some sort like a county seat or state capital to obtain ID requires people to take time off work, which is generally very hard for people in lower-paid or hourly-paid work, as well as for rural people without cars in areas with no public transport

- the driver's license fills this role in many places, but many, many people of colour are pulled over for minor infractions that white people often aren't pulled over for, and therefore disproportionately lose their licenses (and thus their ID)

- state-by-state rules vary immensely; getting an ID may be trivial in state X but very difficult in state Y

- many states only publish information about ID requirements in English, which makes finding out what is needed to register to vote difficult without help for citizens with no or limited English

- ID requirements change seemingly constantly, from election to election, which means voters cannot assume that what they brought to vote last time is sufficient to vote this time, which depresses turnout; if you leave your passport at home, are you going to go back to your apartment to get it if the poll worker doesn't accept your student ID?

- local poll workers at polling places can be downright hostile to voters, insisting on the validity of non-existent laws or doing things "their way" or "the old-fashioned way" when that way has been illegal for years; local poll workers are also relatively lightly trained

- requiring ID means you cannot travel to and from the polling place without it, which makes it difficult to avoid police attention if you don't want to be identified as someone with an outstanding warrant; in many places police officers will park outside or near polling places and rumours that police will be nearby are enough to make people sit out

- voting absentee or with a provisional ballot in many places ALSO requires some ID - you may even have to return to a polling place or local elections office to prove your identity to get your vote to count

Overall: if you are not a well-off American with a lot of other ID and wealth and just evidence that you are you and a citizen and resident in that precinct, voting is very hard compared to most other democracies.
posted by mdonley at 2:42 AM on December 16, 2017 [35 favorites]

Best answer: Other commenters will have more expertise, but here's my very basic understanding:

-In the U.S., you are NOT automatically registered to vote. You have to take the step yourself, and many people just don't get around to it.

-Processes are not standardized and will vary a lot from state to state, county to county, etc. This can apply to registration rules, how a voting center is run, and so on. Bureaucracies get complicated here. It is often shocking for people who move here to find out how disorganized or un-standardized processes are; to use a stereotype, it's almost as though it's still the Wild West.

-The voter ID issue you mention can interact with two categories of voting issues: voter fraud and vote suppression.

-Many people, typically on the "conservative"/GOP side, including the President and the Kobach Commission, claim that voter fraud is a big problem. Voter fraud includes situations like someone voting when they're not actually eligible, voting by impersonating someone else, or voting multiple times. Others, such as this analysis on FiveThirtyEight (a popular data/statistics analysis website), find that voter fraud claims are exaggerated.

-Others argue that the big issue is actually "voter intimidation" or "vote suppression," in which people want to vote but are discouraged from voting. The voter ID issue you mention is part of this. Adding a requirement makes it harder for someone to vote. A lot of people may simply lack the documentation required (because of unstandardized processes, bureaucracy, etc.). Combined with all the other obstacles--e.g., transportation needs, unclear or misleading information, having to take time off from work (voting day is not a holiday), having to wait in line for hours, hostility from poll workers, being afraid of police at the polls--it may be enough to prevent someone from voting at all.

-In a very recent example, there were a lot of cases of voting difficulties or irregularities reported on social media and online during the election for the Senator from Alabama (google Doug Jones vs. Roy Moore). Some examples: people being given "provisional" ballots only, having to list information like their county of birth (which a lot of people might not know), having to wait in queue twice because they had to vote on two different ballots (federal vs state/local), being told the wrong location by false announcements, having to leave without voting because the location didn't open on time, having overcrowding in underprivileged areas, seeing police who were waiting at the poll center for people with outstanding warrants...I don't know how many cases were eventually verified, but these stories come up during almost any major election here, and you can see a pattern.

-I cannot remember the name of it, but there was a quick computer game that was online last year and illustrated the inequalities faced by voters. You had to choose a character, and the goal was to make it to the voting center and vote. Depending on which character you picked (the choices were something like white engineer or black/Latino worker), you faced either a very easy game or a very hard game.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 3:25 AM on December 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: John Oliver sums it up pretty well. And a segment on North Carolina.

(And I hope someone posts actual links but there have been multiple cases of all out bragging that voter registration had reduced votes from POC and therefore democrats - like in North Carolina.)

And yes, voting on a Tuesday is insane. We don't get leave for voting. (ETA: Federal protections, state laws vary for leave.) You'd have to vote absentee or by mail which rules on that vary by state, or not vote if you can't get off work. Not to mention that offices that issue IDs are open during regular business hours - making it sometimes impossible for those who can't afford a day off to get to the office.
posted by Crystalinne at 4:02 AM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So, some quick issues: identification in the US costs money. Sometimes states have ways around this, sometimes not.

Your ID is issued by your state. So, if you move to another state your ID is no longer valid (kind of, this gets into residency rules, you may be able to vote absentee where you previously lived)

IDs expire. An expired ID doesn't count.

Getting an ID requires proof of ID. (This, if you ever loose your documents, costs money! And can be hard! For most natural born US citizens this means social security card and birth certificate... but to get them requires ID. Lose all three at once and you are now in the movie Brazil. It can be done but can literally be months of work).

IDs take time to get. Most cities run the agencies where you get ID on a normal 8 to 5 M to F schedule . There may be limited resources, long wait lines, difficult to transport to, logistical issues.

Voter registration is not tied into any of the above.
posted by AlexiaSky at 4:17 AM on December 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: In Georgia, you need your birth certificate (not a photocopy but a certified copy with a seal), your social security card (again, not a photocopy but the official blue piece of paper), a photo id of some sort (a current passport, driver's license, or ID card counts, but not if it's expired), and two documents proving your residence (lease or mortgage is one, but then you also need a piece of mail that was delivered to the address, but the right piece of mail, such as a utility bill or bank statement). If you have a current Georgia driver's license or state ID, you may not need all of these documents to renew it, but exactly which ones you need changes every time.

If you lose your birth certificate or SS card, they are expensive to replace. If you don't have a current photo ID, you are pretty much SOL. My spouse had the problem that our utility bills are all in my name and he really doesn't get much mail. We finally figured out that his online bank statements have our address on them even though they are not physically mailed to our house, so he was able to print one out and use that.

We are college educated native English speakers with home internet and a printer. It still always takes us more than one trip to the Department of Driver Services to renew our ID. They are open during business hours on weekdays, and sometimes on Saturday but check the schedule first before you go. You have to go to the office in the county where you live, even if you work in a different county, as I do. The one in our county is on a bus line, but it's a long way from the subway system.

One of the charities that I support every year is the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center--one of the main services they provide is helping those experiencing homelessness in Atlanta obtain IDs by first getting them birth certificates and social security cards and providing a mailing address.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:52 AM on December 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: To echo the above, US bureaucracy is really, really difficult to navigate. I'm a non-US citizen who lived in the US for a while. It was really difficult for me to figure out what papers I needed to get a driver's licence - and I'm a native English speaking white woman with a university education who generally knows how to work with bureaucracy, and was living in a place that doesn't tend to have active barriers to voting.

I also had a flexible job that let me go to the Department of Motor Vehicles when it was open during the week, without losing pay or risking my job. I had money to get to that office and back, and to pay the needed fees. I have lived a straightforward enough life that I easily had to hand the necessary documents to prove my identity and eligibility. I don't have kids, so I didn't need to drag them with me or find a carer if I did this on the weekend. I had a stable address, so I received the letter that they sent when my licence expired to tell me that I needed to renew it.

For me, this was just annoying. But I can easily see how someone with fewer resources than me and more things going on with their life could find it impossible. And if I'd moved to another state at any point, I would have had to start over again from scratch.

In my experience, most developed countries do need you to have most or all of these things to get an ID or vote - but if you run into a barrier, there are ways to get around it. For example, in some countries there is a way to register and vote if you are homeless or otherwise of no fixed address. There are multiple ways to prove your address, which might include a letter from a charity certifying your circumstances. At least in many cities, there is workable public transport to get to the city centre. Not to mention basic employment laws that mean you have a liveable minimum wage and some entitlement to paid leave. A lot of this doesn't exist in a lot of places in the US.

(This is just voter ID - many of these issues apply to voting more generally too).
posted by une_heure_pleine at 4:57 AM on December 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

On preview, hydropsyche beat me to it.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 4:58 AM on December 16, 2017

Best answer: >The host kept saying requiring a voter to show an ID was not a big deal

It isn’t for most people. I have had a driver’s license for 45 years. I always have to show it in my state before I vote, and that is a matter of routine. But the fact that I got it so long ago means that I do not know what I would have to produce in order to get a new one or to get an ID card from the Secretary of State’s office.

So showing my license is not a big deal. But I don’t go on TV and say that, if it’s not a big deal for me, it must not be for anyone else either.
posted by yclipse at 5:03 AM on December 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Last year my poll worker "partner" seemed not to understand ID rules and told people without that they couldn't vote, not mentioning provisional ballots. Fortunately I was there to correct him but we do get breaks so I don't know if anyone left because of his error. (He later admitted to memory problems and that his wife didn't want him to work so he probably won't be back next year.) Thus another issue is the difficulty of training unsophisticated workers in complex ID requirements.
posted by Botanizer at 5:10 AM on December 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: This is the bottom line: 25% of African American adults don't have a valid driver's license or ID issued by their home state. That number is only 8% for white adults.

There are a huge variety of factors that go into that disparity, many of which are covered here, but that disparity is the primary driver of both voter ID laws and of opposition to those laws.
posted by muddgirl at 5:20 AM on December 16, 2017 [19 favorites]

Best answer: This story is perhaps an extreme case, but it illustrates the numerous obstacles that can stand in the way of something as seemingly simple as getting an ID
posted by O9scar at 5:21 AM on December 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The posters above have all done a wonderful job of explaining the systemic issues of why obtaining an ID is so challenging for many people. To help connect the dots on why this becomes a Left vs. Right issue, it's important to note (in case it wasn't clear from the above) that the people most impacted by these systemic issues and the least likely to be able to obtain IDs tend to overwhelmingly vote Democratic. That's why the Republicans insist on Voter IDs and related measures - to keep these people from voting against them.
posted by jason and the garlic knots at 5:31 AM on December 16, 2017 [13 favorites]

Best answer: One other point: in the US, you're not actually required to possess or carry ID, nor are you required as a general rule to register with the government. For a long period in our history, this was considered a point of pride, an example of American freedom, that the government wasn't keeping tabs on you.

Over the course of the 20th century, that changed, at a practical level. When cars were invented (and accidents started happening), individual states began to pass laws requiring people to prove basic competency and be issued a license in order to drive. When Social Security was created in the 1930s, American citizens were issued a number by the federal government to keep track of what benefits they were entitled to. These systems are run by different entities and don't mesh with each other, but gradually over the course of the century more and more private institutions began requiring proof of ID to access services, and your drivers license and your Social became the default proofs.

The cludgy, jury-rigged nature of this state of affairs means it's easy to fall between the cracks and simply not have the ID proof required. If you don't drive and lose your Social Security card you can end up in limbo, as it were.
posted by Diablevert at 5:35 AM on December 16, 2017 [14 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all your very helpful answers.
I think I get the difficulty of getting proof of who you are and it's infuriating to learn of all the hoops folks are made to jump through.

Just to clarify, before those strict voter ID laws were pushed, would people just show up to vote with no ID at all? Or no photo ID? Like, it's not like, for example, a non citizen could show up and vote?
posted by M. at 6:08 AM on December 16, 2017

Best answer: Well you would still need to be registered to vote and be on the voter rolls, so no, you could not just show up to vote as a non-citizen.

Some states have same-day registration to vote, but it still works the same way. You have to affirm that you are an eligible voter, and can be prosecuted if you are later found to have lied.
posted by muddgirl at 6:20 AM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just to clarify, before those strict voter ID laws were pushed, would people just show up to vote with no ID at all? Or no photo ID? Like, it's not like, for example, a non citizen could show up and vote?

In NY, you still only need an ID the first time you vote in the state. Every other time, I just say who I am and sign in next to the signature I provided the first time I voted.

You still need to be registered. In most (all?) states, you'll need to *have* ID but not necessarily show ID. In NY, the form has a space where you either provide your driver's license # or the last four digits of your social security number. The idea is that the state can then make sure that someone with your name actually has that d/l or a matching ssn.

The requirement to have ID for registration eliminates most noncitizens, since getting a d/l or ssn is nontrivial. Basically only immigrants and long-term nonimmigrants (students, h1bs) will have that. The US stops those people from voting mostly by just imposing ludicrously stringent punishments for noncitizens who are caught voting. Not looking it up, but ISTR that it *starts* with expulsion and don't-ever-come-back, which might not matter for some tourists but does matter for people who are long-term enough to have a d/l or ssn.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:33 AM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You have to be registered to vote in order to vote. You can’t get registered unless you are eligible to vote. When you go to vote the workers at the voting station ask for your name and address. Then they look you up in a big list to see if you are registered. Then they mark on the list that you are there and give you a ballot. Then you vote. If someone comes in later and gives your name they would be asked for ID. Now they want ID at the voting place, and the type ofID required is becoming stricter even though voter fraud rarely happens.
The issue is that everyone has a constituititional right to vote. You can’t deprive people of their constitutional rights by making it too difficult to use those rights unless there is a grave and compelling reason.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:33 AM on December 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: It was a challenge to get my 19-yo daughter registered to vote and issued a state-issued ID after we moved this spring. She's got plenty of "identification" documents (birth cert, passport, social security card) but she had almost none of the acceptable documents proving her current address (no utility bills, no lease/mortgage, no school records). We had to update her current address on her bank account and wait for the next month's statement to come out. If we hadn't moved from the city to a rural area where she really needs to get her driver's license eventually, I very easily could see her not wanting to jump through the hoops to get a state ID and get registered to vote.

There are still a lot of states where you don't have to show ID *when you show up to vote* but you do have to have the proper credentials when you initially register to vote. To commit voter fraud (as a non-citizen, for example) you'd have to go into a local voting place and claim to be a registered voter from that location and hope they don't also show up to cast their vote.
posted by drlith at 6:47 AM on December 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Running from memory so probably some errors:

even though voter fraud rarely happens

Voter fraud is a small but nontrivial problem in American elections, but is almost entirely committed by the election authorities themselves. County election officials just throwing away ballots from precincts they don't like and making shit up, etc. Rare and small-scale but real.

What is almost nonexistent is voter *impersonation,* which is the only thing that requiring ID at the polling place can prevent. Trying to prevent voter impersonation is like trying to prevent people on line to vote from being attacked by wild animals.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:59 AM on December 16, 2017 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I think the key thing that most people outside the US don't realize is how much control the individual states have. So even in national elections, each state has its own system. That includes the ID requirements, voter eligibility such as whether you're eligible to vote after a criminal conviction, voting methods, and hours. These things vary, sometimes really widely, depending on what state, and sometimes what municipality, you're in. We don't just have one system in the US. It's an enormously complex system of multiple overlapping and sometimes conflicting systems. That cannot be overemphasized. It's very, very weird.

Others have covered some of the many reasons that, depending on your situation, it might be difficult to get a current state-issued identification.

But I'll add that several years ago, some people in my state tried to get a voter ID bill passed requiring an official state ID, and it failed. So when I went to vote, I used an alternate ID to see what would happen. I used a bill in my name with my address, which was one of the options in my state, plus they verify your signature to what they have on record. The two women doing ID checks at intake yelled at me so everyone could hear, implying I was driving without a license and threatening to call the police on me. That's pretty much textbook voter intimidation, which is illegal, but it was really easy for me to get those women to do it. It happens a lot. And it would have been very effective if I hadn't kind of been trolling them, and really didn't have a state ID.

I got those women busted, and they're not there anymore, but some people are motivated to prevent disenfranchised people from voting. A lot of individual state systems are designed to do just that.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:03 AM on December 16, 2017 [30 favorites]

Wow, this all sounds incredibly complicated. As a counter example of a different system, in Quebec we are mailed our voter "invitation" about a month before (no registration required) and we show up with THAT piece of paper and a piece of ID from a list of 5 or so (I don't personally have a driver's license and that's not a problem). Votes are usually on weekends but if they're not an employer is required to give you 6 (or so) hours off to go and vote.

There are challenges for sure, but I can't believe some people live with a government so actively trying to surpress them. No, I can believe that of course, but it's incredible that the government is so shameless and obvious about it.
posted by eisforcool at 7:11 AM on December 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: When I voted in North Carolina previously, it was as folks have said above--I registered when I turned 18 and then when I went to vote, I told them my name and address and they checked it off on a paper list of registered voters. That has changed just in the past 6 years (since the Republicans got control of the state) to require people to show a state issued ID.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:17 AM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am registered to vote. In my district, I show up and the poll workers have a list of all registered voters by address. I give them my address (no proof required, because Massachusetts), and they look it up; then I give them my name. They check me off and give me a ballot. Then we do the same check-off process after I fill out the ballot (with a different poll worker) and I put my ballot in the box.

So they keep track of who's voting, but they don't require proof of identity.
posted by gideonfrog at 8:02 AM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just to clarify, before those strict voter ID laws were pushed, would people just show up to vote with no ID at all?

In Ohio, yup. I would go to my local voting location, the poll workers would have a couple of enormous printed-out books with names, addresses, and photocopies of signatures, I'd tell them my name, they'd look me up in the appropriate book, ask if I was still at the address listed, then I would sign my name in the blank space next to the photocopy of my signature, then they'd hand me my ballot. Occasionally the worker would glance to see if the two signatures looked similar, but often not.

As others have pointed out, first I had to register to vote, and that didn't require ID either, simply filling out a form and sending it in. (With a warning next to the signature that if I deliberately lied on the form my vote would be nullified and I could be subject to criminal prosecution.) Ohio still has (relatively) lenient voter ID laws - here's a pdf link to the current Ohio voter registration form that has to be filled out, and includes info on what constitutes an address and viable voter ID. Note that many acceptable forms of ID don't involve a photo at all.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:20 AM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just to clarify, before those strict voter ID laws were pushed, would people just show up to vote with no ID at all? Or no photo ID? Like, it's not like, for example, a non citizen could show up and vote?

My state, Pennsylvania, doesn't require ID right now and you just go to the table and say what your name is and they find the index card in the little file case that they keep the cards of registered voters in.
posted by octothorpe at 8:23 AM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To revisit the voter suppression thing, Alabama closed driver's license offices in counties with substantial African-American populations.

I also voted in Texas when there was an injunction blocking their voter ID law. They still asked for ID.
posted by hoyland at 8:37 AM on December 16, 2017 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: I can't believe some people live with a government so actively trying to surpress them. No, I can believe that of course, but it's incredible that the government is so shameless and obvious about it.

From reading the links, that has been pretty much my exact sentiment.

Thanks everyone for the explanations. All in all, pretty depressing, and I dislike Bill O'R even more right now. Unlike me, it's not like he didn't know what he was speaking about.
posted by M. at 8:53 AM on December 16, 2017

Best answer: Just to clarify, before those strict voter ID laws were pushed, would people just show up to vote with no ID at all? Or no photo ID? Like, it's not like, for example, a non citizen could show up and vote?

In Wisconsin, when you registered you had to prove residency (something like a utility bill sufficed), show ID and proof of citizenship (birth certificate, passport or social security card). If your name didn't match your ID, you needed a marriage/divorce certificate, court order, or whatever to show your name change. This is all still true. However, when you went to vote, they asked you for your name and looked you up in a book. You verbally confirmed you were at the same address and signed the book. Then they gave you a ballot with a number on it, and wrote that number next to your name in the book.

Post-voter ID law, the process is exactly the same, except that you show a photo ID to the person with the book. It wouldn't be impossible for a non-citizen to vote, but they would need a forged citizenship document that they used to register and also to get their photo ID. Somewhere in that process, they'd likely be caught using a fake social security number, and the consequences of that are very high. I can't imagine someone going through all that just to vote.
posted by AFABulous at 9:00 AM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think the key thing that most people outside the US don't realize is how much control the individual states have.

And how states can apply whatever standards they choose to vital records that originate from other states.

Also, within those states, a lot of control is devolved down further: counties are still the legal keepers of vital records (i.e. birth certificates) though the actual management has been consolidated at the state level, and counties retain a lot of control in running elections. Before the computerisation of records, if a county courthouse burned, its official record of births, marriages and deaths could be reduced to ashes.

In general, Americans didn't need birth certificates to prove their identities until World War II, and most laws requiring their issuance date from that time. Many African-Americans were excluded from the vital records system because of segregation. Many older Americans in general don't have a single discrete officially documented identity -- names are messy, family histories are messy, misspellings and bad transcriptions get into the system, and changing them is expensive.

And yes, Voter ID as currently implemented pretends that identity is simple when it isn't, and reflects how large parts of the US don't have a history of free and fair elections by the standards applied by international observers to other countries, and don't see any need for one.

Contrast this with Canada, which conducts federal elections with the oversight of Elections Canada, and has a national register of electors that is updated when people move, become citizens, turn 18 or pass away, and shared with (most) provinces. Canadians have to show ID when they vote, but it's not as contentious because Canada doesn't systematically disenfranchise voters.
posted by holgate at 9:16 AM on December 16, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: In Pennsylvania, I believe that the first time you vote at a new polling station, you do need to show ID, but it does not need to be photo ID and the voter registration card which is mailed out a few weeks after registering is a valid form of ID. After the first time, ID is not required.
posted by muddgirl at 9:25 AM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Btw, since the Voter ID laws, transgender people can face all kinds of additional wrinkles when trying to vote if their visual appearance and/or name doesn't match up with the gender/name on their ID. In some states, it's impossible to change the gender on your birth certificate; other states require (extremely expensive surgery). Some states won't change the gender on your driver's license w/o the changed birth certificate. As far as I know, all states require at least a doctor's letter certifying that you're the gender you say you are.
posted by AFABulous at 10:01 AM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For more context, there is also a history of Southern states in the US using literacy tests to keep black people from voting from the 1890s through the 1960s (when the federal Voting Rights Act made it illegal). The tests were specifically designed to be difficult, if not impossible, to pass, and the white poll workers could decide someone failed even if they had answered correctly. From the Civil Rights Movement Veterans site:
This process was often referred to as a "literacy test," a term that had two different meanings — one specific and one general. Some states used an actual reading test. But the test results were rigged by biased registrars who were the sole judges whether — in their opinion — you were sufficiently "literate" to "pass." They often did not require white applicants to take the test at all, or always "passed" those who did. Black applicants were almost always required to take the test, even those with college degrees, and they were almost always deemed to have "failed."
That site goes into more specifics, but it may just be helpful to understand that there is a long, long history of white poll workers creating impossible barriers at the polls for minority voters and pretending that such barriers are easy to pass. Voter ID laws are coming out of the same playbook -- putting power in the hands of individual poll workers to determine whether someone meets arbitrary requirements to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
posted by lazuli at 10:30 AM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: And partly because the voting is held on a Tuesday, poll workers (in my anecdotal experience, confirmed by some quick Googling) tend to be retired well-off white people (who have the time to do it) who may not exactly be tuned into non-white, non-middle-class norms; i.e., they'll get suspicious of someone who doesn't have a driver's license and may decide their alternate ID is somehow invalid.
posted by lazuli at 10:36 AM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Elections happen on Sundays

I've lived in Cleveland, Ohio for 30 years - elections are almost always on Tuesday. I think a few times they've been on Thursday (for local election stuff), which confuses the issue even more. Polls are open 7 am - 7 pm. So right off the bat you have to either get time off from work (not easy or even sometimes possible for under-priveleged folks) or make specific plans to get to your polling place extra early or immediately after work.

I am looking for explanations of the voting barriers facing underprivileged people

One of the vote-suppression shenanigans that our state government has been accused of multiple times (at least when said gov't is controlled by Republicans) is placing fewer and/or broken voting machines in heavily African-American or Latinx districts (which tend to go Democrat), versus having lots of nice new voting machines in the heavily-white districts. With the end result being that under-privileged folks have to stand in line for hours if they want to vote, which of course many of them literally cannot do without losing their jobs - voting on Tuesday, remember? So they give up or simply don't try to vote in the first place.

Bonus points for some optimistic ones.

Somewhat surprisingly, our currently Republican state administration has actually taken some steps to make it easier to vote outside of the specific Tuesday election day. One is that they have allowed early in-person voting, where you can go to your county's Board of Elections building and fill out a ballot in the 28 days before a polling day. Another is that they have greatly relaxed the "requirements" for absentee voting or voting by mail. You used to have to prove that you would be unable to make it to your polling location on Election Day - like, show that you were in the military and would be on deployment or otherwise out of state on the day. Now you can simply fill out a request for a vote-by-mail form and mail it in any time in the 28 days before election day, no excuse or proof needed. Also, I'm pretty sure that previously any mail vote was only considered "provisional" and only counted if the election results were close. Now all votes are counted.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:38 AM on December 16, 2017

Best answer: This is a few election cycles ago, but Florida passed a voter ID law that required a drivers license, which (after 9/11) required a birth certificate, both of which (in Florida) cost money to acquire. There were an ENORMOUS number of elderly black voters, who'd been voting their whole lives, suddenly disenfranchised, because Florida didn't allow "Colored" hospitals to issue birth certificates during the Jim Crow era, so black children born at home or in black-only hospitals had to go to the county to get a birth certificate, and frequently the county recorders just fucked with them and refused to issue one, so frequently parents didn't bother. Getting a birth certificate issued 70 years later required substantial paperwork and fees and several visits to different government offices; the whole rigamarole, if you had no birth certificate, cost around $600 just in fees (and many people required lawyers to help them with the paperwork).

So you had all these elderly black citizens who had been voting and paying taxes their whole lives, many of whom had marched for the right to vote and had been beaten for their trouble, suddenly told they couldn't vote anymore and it was going to take weeks and cost them $600 and a bunch of appointments and a bunch of confusing, small-print paperwork to regain the right to vote.

You see how something that's neutral on its face -- have a state ID, for which you need a birth certificate -- is actually hella racist, because it's leveraging the fact that 60 years ago, black people basically didn't get birth certificates. So a "neutral" law is, at a stroke, disenfranchising a huge chunk of reliable Democratic voters (since older people vote at higher rates than younger ones, and African Americans vote Democrat). And middle-class white people say, "But what's so hard about getting a birth certificate? This isn't an onerous requirement! If you want to vote, you can certainly get a birth certificate, it's not a big deal!" since they just head down to the county clerk's office and pay $17 or whatever. It's sneaky and pernicious.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:14 AM on December 16, 2017 [21 favorites]

Best answer: Spread the Vote is an organization that helps disenfranchised voters -- here's a page with a few of the personal stories of their voters, where you can see how the lack of legal paperwork and subsequent processing fees create an effective poll tax.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:25 AM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "would people just show up to vote with no ID at all?"

As noted above, you had to be registered but no other ID was required. The idea was that the neighborhood served by a single polling place was so small that the people behind the desk would know you personally. Each party has a "poll watcher" present to see that everything was as it should be. Now, of course, the number of people assigned to each polling place is to large for this to be realistic.

In general, folks outside the US don't understand how much the USA is still a collection of states each of which has fairly robust government functions. Each state has it's own voting laws which apply as well to Federal elections (though not always in exactly the same detail).

The State of Connecticut, where I live, started requiring voter ID with very little fuss some time before all the brouhaha on the subject broke out. The political battles are more about civil rights and racism than about voting per se.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:30 AM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Re: voting being done on a weekday. In two states I have lived in (Michigan and California) there are laws that employers have to give all employees up to 3 hours paid time off to go vote in the morning of the election. Only about 6 states have this law so it is not widespread.

I am 37 and was a supervisor of a department of 6 people with masters degrees ( so smart folks who have worked 5-20 jobs previously and who have successfully navigated many bureaucracies) and I mentioned this law the week before the 2016 presidential election, reminding them to tell me if they would be in late or leaving to vote. Not a single one of them knew about this law, or had ever had been given time off to vote. I then went and talked to the other supervisors of other departments. They didn’t know about this law either! (Our director tried to argue with me that it didn’t count for salaried people, only hourly wage workers. No, it is all employees.) So for the past 20 years at least, my entire workplace hasn’t been following this law, and it took someone in middle management to stand up to the big boss to get it followed. Not everyone wants to rock the boat (and I later got fired, story for another day).

Another aspect I think hasn’t been mentioned directly but has been indirectly is the decline of locally owned media and declining membership in social groups (unions, local branches of political parties, religious orgs., etc.). Since voting rules and practices vary so much, very little of what you hear in national media likely applies to you ( like, CA doesn’t require ID at all to vote). But if you are a regular person in CA and don’t have an ID and hear stories from national news about how people in Alabama need ID to vote, and have to get their birth certificate and sample of their moms blood and 3 bank statements and go to a hidden basement office at 7 am on a Thursday and say the incantation to get the are you supposed to know you don’t need ID here, or that getting an ID here is a lot easier anyway? There are fewer opportunities to counter these national messages with local info. This helps to explain these confusions, mistakes, missteps, blocks put up by polling workers, etc. described by others in this thread.
posted by holyrood at 11:49 AM on December 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: In birth certificates, I needed a replacement. I don't live where I was born, but I have family there. Trying by mail was hard so the next time I travelled I went and got one. But I literally drove across country and delayed getting it to avoid the headache of doing it out of state.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:03 PM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: would people just show up to vote with no ID at all? Or no photo ID? Like, it's not like, for example, a non citizen could show up and vote?

I'm not sure it's been specifically mentioned, but "voter ID" is not some sort of special ID just for voting. It's just having a regular photo ID like driver's license (issued by the state) or state photo ID (for people who don't drive, but still has requirements and fees to get). Passports might also be acceptable but I'm not sure.

ID that isn't a photo ID? I'm not even sure what that would be -- how would they even know it's you, without a photo to compare? ID basically means the same thing as photo ID -- if you try to use something without a photo at places that ask you to show ID (not just for government stuff, I have to show ID to go to a bar, do certain types of banking, pick up a prescription, or visit a doctor), if you pull out a library card or something without a picture the best you will get is laughed at.

There is a deadline for registering some time before the election. I'm not required to show ID where I live for state elections (I am required to do so for city elections though) (state elections include presidential ones, because electoral college). It's quick for the poll workers to look up my info if I hand them my license, and then print a ballot from the computer which will offer the proper choices for candidates in my district. If I don't show my ID, I'd give my name and they would ask for other info like my DOB, address, and possibly be very suspicious if I was to seem like it was hard to remember these or had any error.

Also useful to know -- poll worker is basically a very temporary job, though it's common for people to do this job year after year -- it's more a job that's "I'm doing civic involvement" than "I need quick cash" as you might assume based on it being a temporary job. Poll workers are not supposed to talk about politics while at the polling station, or let what political party they support influence how they treat voters -- however, they can see what party a voter has registered as, and if they are politically motivated they could be more demanding about the requirements with people they think might vote against the candidate the worker favors, or even just say "you'll have to fill out this form if you don't have an ID" with an intonation that makes it sound like there could be trouble or in a more friendly way.
posted by yohko at 1:19 PM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What is almost nonexistent is voter *impersonation,* which is the only thing that requiring ID at the polling place can prevent. Trying to prevent voter impersonation is like trying to prevent people on line to vote from being attacked by wild animals.

This is the crux of it for me. Voter fraud of the sort where someone "illegally votes" basically almost never happens. Like literally almost never. The amount of money spent on "preventing" this is along the lines of the drug testing they did for food stamp recipients. A huge waste of time but a great drum for conservatives to beat to imply that poor people were up to something. See also "welfare queen" hysteria which is also not true. Controlling who can vote can control who gets elected. So rich controlling jerks try to do a lot of it. Also lower voter turnout is highly correlated with Republicans getting elected. Higher "minority" (usually Black and Latinx voters) turnout strongly correlated with Democrats getting elected.

I am a poll worker. I am in a state (Vermont) with fairly liberal voting laws. You do not need an ID to vote. You can vote if you are a felon. If you are developmentally disabled you can have someone in the polling booth with you. You can register day-of (this is new). We get a lot of training on this. The people who staff the polls where I am are a bipartisan group of volunteers and elected people (I am an elected Justice of the Peace, I do a lot of small civic things). Our town clerk (who is Chinese fwiw) very much wants everyone who is eligible to vote to be able to. However one town over there might be a different clerk with a different attitude. We look over the voter rolls and try to be very lenient and only strike someone from the voter rolls if we know for certain they have moved, or are dead. In other states they can have a computer basically guess at who should be stricken which means that person shows up and someone flips them a bunch of static and depending on what sort of a day they have had and how much of their own rights they know, they may or may not push the issue.

My state has five DMVs in the entire state. It's non-trivial to get a legal ID and nearly impossible if you don't drive. Requiring ID would be the functional equivalent of saying "We want to make it harder for poor people to vote" In Vermont, this is not the same as saying "We want to make it harder for Black people to vote" (for various reasons basically because a higher percentage of Black people in Vermont live in cities and most of our truly poor people are rural) but in many states, thanks to institutionalized racism, it's exactly the same thing.
posted by jessamyn at 2:15 PM on December 16, 2017 [10 favorites]

Best answer: In Washington State it's all vote by mail, which means you don't need to show ID (there's nobody to show it to) but you do need to have an address you can get mail at.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:55 PM on December 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Student IDs issued by colleges and universities are an issue of contention as well. Many students don't have cars so they would like to use their student (photo) ID. I believe it was Texas that disallowed student IDs but allowed concealed carry gun permits as ID for voting. Other forms of photo ID that may or may not be good enough, depending on what the poll worker thinks, include military ID, tribal ID, and employer ID such as hospital or government workers have. Voter registration cards don't have a picture but are sometimes accepted.
posted by irisclara at 3:15 PM on December 16, 2017

I'd like to clarify my answer-- I think by far the vast majority of poll workers are committed to the democratic process and want people to vote!
posted by yohko at 3:17 PM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Following up on jessamyn's response: states with pretty decent, robust civic cultures and reasonably well-implemented voting systems tend to be ones that are a lot whiter than the US as a whole, especially going back through history: Vermont, the Scando-influenced northern Midwest and mountain states, the Pacific NW states. They're states where the incumbents never feared losing control to Them.

The modern Voter ID push came from not from the old south but from states with a relatively decent civic history -- Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas -- where the incumbents saw demographics changing around them and didn't like it.
posted by holgate at 4:50 PM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well, to be fair the original voter ID push (in modern times) was HAVA's requirement that states require ID to be shown either upon initial registration or the first time you vote after registering. How that was supposed to help with hanging chads I'm not quite sure, but it was in there.

Nonetheless, all three states I've lived in have either not required ID to vote (though in Oklahoma they looked at me funny) or required only the voter registration card they mail to you when you register.

That said, I have been given at least a small bit of hassle every time I have voted without producing photo ID since 2004. I intentionally avoid showing photo ID precisely because poll workers so often get it wrong. Ironically, last year was my first time voting in Florida and they messed it up in reverse. I should have been required to vote a provisional ballot but was given a regular ballot instead. The person checking people off the list didn't want to let me vote at all.

Sadly, I doubt most people would persist when turned away since Florida has a "voter ID" law which is widely assumed to mean photo ID only when in fact your voter registration card is all you need after the first election after your registration. (The first time, if you lack ID you vote provisional and they compare signatures to verify) Untrained front line poll workers and people without the privilege of being taken seriously when they complain almost certainly mix to effectively deny many people the right to vote even in states where the laws appear at first glance to not be entirely unreasonable. Poll workers like to do the common thing, not the thing they aren't used to.

(Conversely, in Oklahoma they managed to reverse my first and middle names in the precinct book when I moved, but the workers took the time to figure it out, updated my registration, and allowed me to vote. Can you guess what the racial makeup of the various precincts were? Let's just say you wouldn't be surprised if you're a cynic.)
posted by wierdo at 5:48 PM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again everyone. Very enlightening thread indeed.
posted by M. at 10:55 AM on December 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you for asking and trying to understand.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:17 AM on December 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Final update from the OP:
I was looking back at this question today and donated $$ to Spread The Vote in Bill O'Reilly's name. After all, I would have never learned of all this were it not for him.

It gave me the tiny bit of satisfaction I needed today. Glad there are still people and orgs out there helping out in this mess!
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:56 PM on December 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

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