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February 18, 2015 11:31 AM UTC

Getting an ID for voting isn't as easy as Wayne Williams implies

  • by: Jason Salzman

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Secretary of State Wayne Williams.
Secretary of State Wayne Williams.

Back in January, Colorado's new Secretary of State, Wayne Williams, suggested that people who register and vote on Election Day should present a "Department-of-Revenue-issued ID."

Williams made it sound like this would be a snap for voters: "And it’s important to note that in Colorado, ID’s are free, to anyone who’s indigent. Anyone who’s poor, anyone who’s elderly can get a free ID," Williams told Colorado Public Radio's Ryan Warner Jan. 11.

Technically, that's true. But in reality, especially if you're old or indigent, getting an ID is often neither easy nor free. With the Colorado state legislature debating a bill today requiring IDs for Election-Day registration, now is a good time for Warner to air some of the facts that run counter to Williams' simple view.

The core problem is that, while an ID itself is free, through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the underlying documentation required to get an ID can be expensive to obtain and time-consuming to assemble.

From reading Colorado's law mandating free IDs for those over 64-years and the indigent, you might think all you have to do is trot over to your county human services department, pick up the required forms, and then get hooked up with your free ID from DMV.

Not really. At Denver Human Services, you can get a coupon for a free ID if you declare that you are homeless, and therefore entitled to a $10.50 fee waver. But if you don't have citizenship documents, you have to go to a nonprofit "partner" organization for help, according to Julie Smith, Communications Director at Denver Human Services.

"We recognize that this is a challenge to navigate, especially if you have to obtain a birth certificate," said Smith, adding that transportation alone is a "big challenge" for people who are homeless.

Metro CareRing is one of Denver Human Service's partner organizations that helps poor people get their citizenship documents together–at no charge.

"I often refer to our staff person who works on this as, affectionately, a 'detective' because people come to us sometimes not even knowing their birth place or all of their birth circumstances," said Lynne Butler, Executive Director of Metro CareRing, echoing others in the field in Denver. "They might say, they think their mother was incarcerated in the state of New Jersey. Our staff person will begin from a place like that and spend a great deal of time and investigation finding the material and ordering the proper identification documents that come from the state for that birth certificate. So it’s a paper-trail process, and expensive."

But funding the project now, even without more people potentially requiring IDs for  voting, is thin.

"We’ve had to turn away people," said Butler, who says her organization provides more documents for the poor than any other  nonprofit in Colorado. "And to think that we might have more people in need of documents now because of [voting requirements] is an alarming thought."

"Right now, we’re struggling to find the funding that we need," says Butler. "We had to cut back recently, because some of our funding, in fact our major funder, cut back." Butler says a "Collaborative ID Project," with Denver Human Services, Colorado Legal Services, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, and Metro CareRing, work together.

The IDs poor people obtain with the help of nonprofits like Metro CareRing serve many purposes, Butler points out, reflecting the widespread belief that getting an ID is a critical part of anti-poverty efforts, even it's difficult to get IDs. You need an ID to pick up mail, to rent an apartment, get Medicaid and other public benefits, to open a bank account, to get a job, to see a doctor or get medicine from a pharmacist.  Sometimes you can work around the ID requirements, but people like Butler say an ID is a necessity of life.

And she hopes somehow, someday everybody will have an ID.

But as of today, that's nowhere near the case. And the resources aren't there to change that reality any time soon, as the government agencies, including DMV itself, and nonprofits that help poor people get IDs are at or near capacity.

And the number of people with no IDs appears to be in the staggering range–especially when viewed from the comfortable perspective of those who have little or no contact with indigent or poor people.

Last year, in a review of studies on voter-identification issues, the Government Accountability Office found that between 5 and 16 percent of registered voters do not have photo identification. That's registered voters, potentially hundreds of thousands or more of them among Colorado's 3.5 million registered voters. Colorado voters must show show a photo ID when they register to vote, if they have one, so Colorado may have fewer registered voters without IDs than other states, but we don't know for sure.

Still, you'd have to think the percentage of unregistered voters (over a half million in Colorado) without IDs would be higher, potentially in the tens of thousands.

The Department of Motor Vehicles issued a total of 23,458 free ID cards in 2014, with nearly 18,000 of those going to people over 64, according to data supplied by the Department of Motor Vehicles. About 2,000 were distributed at no charge to a holder of a county coupon, most likely indicating homeless or indigent status. Another 1,800 were issued at no cost to the Department of Corrections.

So when you explore the world of getting identification cards for the poor, what you find out is that it's a huge problem without a simple fix, especially with current resources. A Loyola University study found that while some votes would be voided by a photo ID, tens of thousands of people without IDs would be disenfranchised. This confirms a Brennan Center for Justice study citing research that voter-identification "laws disproportionately harm minorities, low-income individuals, seniors, students, and people with disabilities."

Here in Colorado, if a law passed requiring a person to have an ID to register to vote on Election Day, it would clearly be impossible for some people to get an ID card, if they decided to vote on Election Day itself. And it might be impossible even if they planned months in advance or longer.

So, when Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams hits the media circuit and implies it's easy for poor people to get an ID, reporters should be sure to offer up the other side, invisible as it is to most of us.


22 thoughts on “Getting an ID for voting isn’t as easy as Wayne Williams implies

  1. Good and necessary reporting, Jason. Even for people with means and transportation, getting a new ID is highly problematic.

    I had to move and change jobs right when my old driver's license expired. The DMV in my new town closes 1/2 hour after my work hours end, so I had to find the office, rush over, wait in line, etc. They also needed a physical address to put on the new license,  when I was living in motels or commuting to family in Aurora at the time.

    I lied and used my commercial mail box address. If I had not lied, I would have had to wait another month to get an ID. And I would have been trapped in a vicious circle of being unable to get an ID and unable to apply for permanent housing without a valid ID.

    When I had to get a new certified birth certificate and social security card, similar hassles ensued. Imagine how much more difficult this would be for someone relying on public transportation, or with a language barrier.

    It's ironic that Republicans in the House are promoting stricter voter ID regulations, at the same time that they are promoting looser rules for concealed-carrying of  guns. They are also trying to get rid of  drivers licenses for immigrants. It certainly looks as if they are more afraid of eligible voters voting, than they are afraid of unlicensed, uninsured drivers driving.

  2. Pols, you need to get a different stock photo of Wayne Williams. The one you're using makes him look like the guest host of the PTL Club or some other damn tele-evangelist.

    1. I'm pretty sure that "stock photo" is an official one that Wayne has posted before–either on the El Paso County Clerk site or his campaign site. You prefer, perhaps, the current photo on the SOS site?

  3. My mother-in-law, who lived to be 105 and was a survivor of the  1906 San Francisco earthquake, never had her birth certificate because it went up in smoke in the fires that followed that earthquake. At one point, the nursing home contacted us to let us know that for something or other government assistance related (I forget the details) they needed everybody's proof of citizenship for that assistance to continue. No problem, they said. Get affidavits from people who will attest to her being born in the US. By this time she was past 100 and nobody alive, much less old enough at the time she was born to remember, was still with us. Fortunately it was decided that the fact that she'd been a registered to vote since the mid 1920s and had qualified to collect social security as a US citizen over 35 years prior would just have to do. Presumably she had been able to produce something acceptable back in the day.  Also fortunate that she had us to advocate for her. How many elderly would have any idea how to navigate a situation like this? It took a lot of advocating, calling and writing to get this done for her. After all, I lost my birth certificate in the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire kind of sounds like the dog ate my homework.

  4. I can hardly wait for Wayne Williams' "solution" to the GOP-created problem of "Show me your papers!"

    No doubt something along the lines of implanting a chip in every newborn…

    1. You have to show an ID to do anything these days: rent a car, stay in a motel, and to buy a gun (another supposed constitutional right). Why shouldn't an ID be required to vote? The fraction of a percentage of those who might have a problem are nothing compared to the fraud that would be prevented IMO. You logic makes no sense, especially when compared to other things liberals expect a proper ID for.

      Why the double standard?

        1. Guess he doesn't realize that boarding a plane, renting a car or staying in a motel aren't constitutional rights. If I want to I can require ID for entering my home. Hey, it's my house. If I won't let you in without taking off your shoes, that's my right. What does any of that prove about voting? Nothing.

      1. Have you had to produce your birth certificate lately?

        I don't recall being asked to produce one when I got my driver's license – either in Colorado or in the states I've lived previously – I just checked the "I'm a citizen of the US" box a long time ago and have been relying on interstate cooperation since then. I don't have to produce it for work applications – a valid photo ID (see driver's license, above) plus a Social Security card is sufficient for the IRS.

        Not everyone has a passport, but when I went to get mine, I had to go through (expensive, inconvenient, and time-consuming) hoops to get a copy of my birth certificate.

        An ID that proves citizenship isn't as common as you'd think.

        1. And the short form certificate you get, while the only one with any legal meaning, isn't legit according to the birthers. For them it has to be the legally meaningless souvenir certificate with the cute foot print you get from the hospital. The one that is not accepted for obtaining a passport. I know because I had that one but had to send away and pay for the short form with the raised seal, just like the one Obama produced, in order to get my passport. The hospital version, complete with my cute little foot, was not acceptable for official government purposes. No raised seal, no go. The short form raised seal is not just good enough. It's the only one that's good enough.

          1. I had to visit the clerk's office in my (not in my state of residence) county of birth – they wouldn't let me send away for it. I don't know what that was supposed to prove – they ID'd me using my driver's license and asked me questions others could have found the answers to.

      2. Oh dear! How in the world did our democracy manage to survive the 18th and 19th centuries before the invention of the automobile and the drivers licence photo ID with merely the Constitution to go one for determining who shall have the right and duty to vote?

      3. Let's not forget that voter fraud has yet to become an actual problem. Republican county clerks who would have gladly blown that horn couldn't find any examples of it actually happening.

            1. Pols, I have tried before to correct this false claim you repeat here that Caldara didn't actually "vote," he just made a show of it.

              Caldara cast a ballot out of district. He made a show of not marking the ballot, but he prepared it for voting the way he wanted to cast it, and then he cast it. The official act is casting the ballot, not how it was or was not marked. To say he "only made a show of it" is not consistent with the law.

              Caldara showing the ballot prepared for voting was a second violation of election law. When DA Day May and (then) AG John Suthers declined to prosecute Caldara on the out-of-district vote, they did not even mention this second violation of the law–which was clear, on video, and had nothing to do with the dispute over the residency issue.

              C.R.S. 1-13-712. Disclosing or identifying vote

              (1) …no voter shall show his ballot after it is prepared for voting to any person in such a way as to reveal its contents.


              (4) Any person who violates any provision of this section is guilty of a misdemeanor…

              Suthers rationalized that he could not win the case on residency. However, he did not deal at all with this second violation that was on video.

  5. Oh, and by the way, I'm an "inactive" voter now since I moved, even though I changed my registration online at the same time that I changed my mailing address. 

    So basically I have to register twice, and keep checking back. This happened in 2012, too – they kept trying to de-activate me. Good luck with that!wink

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