If no one provides him with a ride, Jose Zuniga, 83-years old and wheelchair-bound, would have to take two or three buses and travel 20 miles to reach the nearest south Texas government office that could issue the new photo ID he will need to vote in upcoming elections.
Zuniga is one of a particular sub-set of an estimated 500,000 eligible voters in 10 states who could be negatively affected by stricter photo ID laws. They do not own a car nor do they drive. They live more than 10 miles away from a state office that can issue the ID required to vote and that would be considered a fulltime facility, that is, one that is open more than two days a week.
In Texas alone, close to 13 percent, or nearly two million, of the state’s voting–age citizens live more than 10 miles from the nearest state office that can issue a voter ID.
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Texas is one of 10 states examined in The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification, a newly released study by the Brennan Center for Justice. The states, selected because of their more restrictive legislation for government-issued photo ID requirements, are Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.
“For this study, we wanted to look at how difficult it would be for those estimated three to four million voters in the affected states to obtain voter ID,” said Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center and the study’s co-author. “What we found really undercuts the claim by many proponents of these laws that eligible voters can easily obtain an ID to vote.”
In some instances, the states’ data corroborate the study’s findings. The study does not speculate about the political intention of the supporters for more restrictive ID laws, though partisan opponents of the laws note that, with few exceptions, the legislatures that enacted them have been Republican controlled. Rather, it graphically shows how poverty, states’ persistent underinvestment in public transportation — especially in rural areas — and bureaucratic inefficiencies among different agencies, combine to pose daunting challenges for many Americans to obtain documentation required to vote in states where the laws have been proposed or allowed to stand.
In Wisconsin, one town’s government ID-issuing office is only open on the fifth Wednesday of the month. Admittedly, the town’s population is under 5,000, but the fifth-Wednesday rule results in the office being open only four times during 2012. With February and May behind us, it will open again on Wednesday, August 29, but not in September. If you miss August, wait until October 31.
“In other states,” the study noted, “Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas — many part-time ID-issuing offices are in the rural regions with the highest concentrations of people of color and people in poverty.”
There are stark examples of how limited hours could affect working, eligible voters who need a new photo ID. “In South Carolina, only six of the state’s 68 ID offices are open on Saturday. No state ID-issuing offices are open on Saturdays in Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Texas and Wisconsin. All ID-issuing offices in restrictive voter ID states are closed on Sunday,” the study notes.
The study also shows just how potentially pernicious structural barriers can be, and not just for rural populations. In Rock Hill, S.C., according to the study, “the city’s largest concentration of eligible black voters — nearly 42,000 of them — live in the city center. Yet the city’s one ID-issuing office is located seven miles outside the city center. The city has no regularly scheduled public transportation; the only available public transportation to an ID office requires 48 hours notice for a scheduled pick up.”
The study cites 32 counties in Texas near the Mexican border with only two photo ID-issuing offices among them. Over 80,000 voting-eligible Latino voters reside in those counties.
In state after state, the study shows that the disproportionate, collective impact of limited offices or office hours for ID-issuing agencies and lack of public transportation falls on African-American and Latino populations.
Similarly, because of the higher concentration of poverty among those same constituencies, the out-of-pocket costs to obtain photo IDs can be problematic. Even where states issue a “free” photo ID, there are costs incurred to obtain the documentation necessary to obtain one. Congresswoman Gwenn Moore, D-Wis., who opposes her state’s photo-ID laws, said she knows of constituents who have spent hundreds of dollars in their quest to obtain a voter ID.
Where cost is not an issue, bureaucratic hurdles can still be vexing. The study gave the example of an eligible voter caught in a Mississippi Catch-22: in order to get a government-issued photo ID to vote, one must present a birth certificate, but a photo ID is required by the state before a birth certificate can be issued.
Sundeep Iyer, the Brennan Center’s principal quantitative analyst and co-author of the study, said researchers’ conversations with Americans around the country seem to indicate that people generally think voter ID laws are a good thing, but they also feel an ID shouldn’t be made too difficult to get. And that is precisely the point that the study reveals. “The difficulty of obtaining ID is part and parcel of what a voter ID law is about,” Iyer said. “You can’t divorce the voter ID law itself from the difficulty of obtaining voter ID.” The negative effect on individuals and populations “speaks very strongly against the merits of these laws,” he noted.
The status of voter ID laws varies among the 10 states surveyed. Alabama’s law will not be in effect in time for this year’s election and the federal court ruling on the Texas law, which was opposed by the Department of Justice, won’t be announced until the end of August. Similarly, South Carolina and Mississippi laws are pending federal approval. Photo ID laws are currently in effect in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Pennsylvania’s law is also being challenged in a lawsuit, and Wisconsin’s proposed laws are still tied up in state court.
Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, cast the issue of voter ID laws in moral terms. He noted that Jose Zuniga had voted for decades under Texas’s prior ID laws and that there are thousands of Americans like him who will now have to struggle to exercise their right to vote.
The initiative behind the photo ID laws, Norden observed, “betrays the idea that, in the United States, we ensure that all people have equal access to the franchise.”