"We Couldn't Eat The Birth Certificate" – the burden of Voter ID for people living in poverty

On September 3, 2014 in Texas, witnesses discussed the hardships of obtaining the state’s “free” voter ID.
According to MSNBC, “Sammie Louise Bates moved to Texas from Illinois in 2011. She wanted to vote last year, but all she had was an Illinois identification card, and under Texas’s strict voter ID law, that wasn’t acceptable. To get a Texas ID, Bates needed a birth certificate from her native Mississippi, which cost $42. That was money that Bates, whose income is around $321 a month, didn’t have.”

“I had to put $42 where it would do the most good,” Bates, who is African-American, testified Tuesday [9/3/14], the first day of the trial over Texas’s ID law. “We couldn’t eat the birth certificate.”

Not everything is bigger in Texas.

Much like North Carolina’s so-called “monster” voter suppression law (rolled out in part this year and which will require a voter to present a valid photo-ID beginning in 2016), Texas’ voter-ID law went into effect shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby County decision. By that time, the Texas law had already been approved, but a federal judge prevented it from rolling out until protections offered by the full Voting Rights Act were eliminated and the law was allowed to go into effect.
In North Carolina, lawmakers in the General Assembly bided their time until just after the Voting Rights Act was effectively hobbled before unveiling their full voter ID bill. At a whopping 49 pages, it is one of the strictest, most comprehensive and regressive in the nation. The bill breezed through both houses in July 2013 and was signed into law by the Governor a month later. The following day the Southern Coalition for Social Justice challenged the North Carolina monster bill in both State and Federal courts. The federal case is League of Women Voters et al v. North Carolina, and the state case is Alberta Currie et al v. North Carolina.

There’s no such thing as a “free” voter-ID

The Alberta Currie case raises many of the same concerns addressed by today’s testimony in the Texas Voter ID case – how do people of limited financial means manage to jump through all of the hoops necessary to obtain even a “free” state-issued photo ID? The named plaintiff, Alberta Currie, is an example of someone who faces insurmountable barriers to obtaining a photo id. Currie is a 78-year-old native of Robeson County who now lives in Cumberland County. She doesn’t have a photo ID and cannot obtain one in North Carolina without a birth certificate. Therein lies the rub. Alberta Currie doesn’t have a birth certificate; she was born at home to a midwife and was never issued one.
No birth certificate? No problem, says the State of North Carolina: the law allows for a work-around for folks like Ms. Currie who don’t have any way to obtain one. All she has to do is have a blood relative attest to being present at her birth. But as she is in her late 70’s, Ms. Currie is running short of living relatives who can so attest. Her one remaining sister lives out of state, has dementia and is thus no longer mentally fit to do so legally.
Ms. Currie is just one example of the multitudes of North Carolina voters who may not have access to state-issued photo ID. In 2012, 318,644 registered North Carolina voters lacked DMV-issued photo IDs with names that matched those found on their voter registration cards according to data collected and posted by the State Board of Elections. A review of this data showed that North Carolina’s voting law will disproportionally burden African Americans, women, young people, and the very poor. Of the nearly 319,000 voters in North Carolina who may not have acceptable identification under the new law, the percentage of white voters exceeds that of African Americans yet African Americans are nearly twice as likely to lack eligible voter-ID in 2016.

Alberta Currie has paid taxes her entire working life, has a social security number, birth certificates for her two children born here, and has produced reliable  and convincing evidence that she is indeed who she says she is. Even if that weren’t the case, however, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves, “how many hoops a person should have to jump through to be deemed worthy to vote?”

We contend the North Carolina Constitution has already described exactly what may be required of a voter to prove they are “worthy” to cast a ballot, and that it was written to guarantee that Alberta Currie and people like her can exercise their fundamental right to vote.
Post by SCSJ Deputy Director Shoshannah Sayers and Researcher Sarah Moncelle