Viviette Applewhite, 93, has sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because after voting there for decades, she will be turned away from the polls this year if she has no photo ID. An African American great-great-grandmother who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., Ms. Applewhite has no birth certificate, has never had a driver’s license, and can’t come up with the documents to prove who she is to the state’s satisfaction.
Women and their allies struggled for decades to obtain a voice and a vote in matters of state that affected their lives and those of their children. Expanding the franchise was part of a long march of history toward legal and political equality for all of our nation’s citizens —an equality rooted in the belief that it is the government’s job to make access to voting fair and not unreasonably difficult.
Now the country’s voters face a wave of state laws purporting to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. The new laws, passed over the last two years, make it harder to vote in a variety of ways, particularly for women. They restrict early voting and eliminate same day registration, making it more difficult for women with jobs and family responsibilities to vote. They impose onerous ID requirements that are particularly difficult for women to overcome. While more restrictive laws might appear to affect everyone equally, in fact it is older women who will be most affected.
Eight states, including Florida, now include provisions requiring a state-issued photo ID. Obtaining such an ID if you don’t have one — and one-in-10 Americans do not — can mean that you must produce a birth certificate and two other forms of ID, such as a Social Security card, in your current name. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that 7 percent of adult American citizens surveyed, or more than 13 million people, say they do not have ready access to U.S. passports, naturalization papers or birth certificates.
For women, it’s even worse. Because 90 percent of women change their names upon marriage or divorce, having ready access to their U.S. birth certificates does not actually assist in proving identity as an adult. According to the Brennan survey, only two-thirds of voting-age women with ready access to any proof of citizenship have a document with their current legal name.
That means that as many as 32 million voting-age women may not have proof of citizenship documents that these states will accept. The Center also estimates that if a married woman did not have a certified copy of her birth certificate and marriage license, it could easily cost her up to $70 to acquire the documents necessary to obtain a photo ID. That’s several times the amount of the poll tax that was abolished in the 1960s, even after adjusting for inflation.
Obtaining documentation of citizenship can be incredibly difficult. A significant number of older women were born at home and have no birth certificates at all. Local and state government offices that issue birth certificates or ID are typically inconveniently located with limited hours of service. For those who no longer live where they were born, business must be done by mail and can take weeks.
Those who go to the polls unaware of what they need or unable to obtain it in time can cast provisional ballots — but they have only a few days to come up with documents that will force the local registrar to count their votes. Naturalization papers misplaced or lost in a fire cost $345 to replace, plus the cost of obtaining verification documents.
It turns out that Viviette Applewhite has a lot of company. Statistically, older women are among the most dedicated voters and it is not only particularly insulting to them to have to prove who they are when they have been voting regularly for their entire adult lives, it also comes at great expense and inconvenience. In some cases the result of these laws is that these women are unable to vote at all.
Grandmothers and grandchildren alike must get involved in efforts to assist in voter registration and eventually to reverse these laws to save the franchise for our fellow citizens and to restore common sense to the process of registering to vote and casting a ballot on Election Day. In a democracy, voting is our most precious right, and it must be protected.
Nancy Kaufman is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, Inc. Nancy LeaMond is the executive vice president of the AARP State & National Group.