WMC News & Features

Why Voter ID Laws Will Disenfranchise Women

Black Suffrage1

The author alerts U.S. women that new regulations could block their vote in the 2012 electionover nine decades after women won the franchise.

Voter ID laws enacted now in over half the states, requiring voters to present some form of identification as a requirement to vote, are seemingly simple in nature. But they will place unreasonable burdens on many women who may well be unaware of the difficulty they could face when casting their vote in the 2012 election.

Fourteen states require a government issued photo ID when voting in person. At the time of registering to vote, other states like Kansas and Alabama further demand proof of citizenship beyond the federal legal requirement that potential voters swear they are citizens. During the 2011 legislative session, five states—Wisconsin, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina—joined Georgia and Indiana by enacting the strictest form of photo ID requirement for voters, and most of these newest changes will first come into effect for the 2012 election.

Proponents of the laws argue that photo IDs are a reasonable way to protect our elections and make them fair. But far from harmless, the laws are complex and place unnecessary hardship on women—those who are newly married or recently divorced as well as senior citizens and low-income women. Requiring voters to register with proof of citizenship is more problematic for women than for men. A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU law school shows that only 66 percent of voting-age women with ready access to any proof of citizenship have a document with their current legal name. Women who have recently married or divorced and have changed their names—and whose passport, naturalization papers or birth certificate are in their former names—will then be required to obtain a certified court document showing the divorce decree or marriage certificate. These documents vary in cost from state to state but can cost upwards of $25 plus any time off work needed to obtain them. The certified court documents may not even be in the state where you now reside, further delaying and complicating matters.

And for low income persons including women earning less than $25,000 per year, at least 12 percent don’t even have ready access to passports, naturalization papers or birth certificates, according to the Brennan Center research. Voting rights advocates argue that citizenship requirements have the potential to affect millions of Americans, including low-income and women voters. The League of Women Voters in many states has long asserted these laws hinder those who can least afford to take off work and pay for transportation to get the necessary documents.

For those women who are already registered to vote, the same problem will hold true. The photo ID must be in the same name that is registered with the Election Board. Hence, any recent changes in name from divorce or marriage will require certified proof of the name change along with the new photo ID. Of course, most men need not endure such onerous paper trail requirements. But U.S. women change their names in 90 percent of marriages. Karen Celestino-Horseman, an attorney for the League of Women Voters, says “women in particular are going to be impacted,” by requirements that they produce documents authenticating every name change in cases of marriage and divorce.

Some of the laws will allow you to provisionally vote if you arrive on Election Day without the proper ID, and then return within several days with a current photo ID. There is no guarantee that a provisional ballot will count. And taking an extra day to straighten things out and get the necessary photo ID has an economic consequence for many working women, particularly low income women. Lawyers who challenged the Indiana voter ID law, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2008, cited the experience of Valeria Williams. A black Republican in her 60s, she was told in 2006 that her telephone bill, letter from the Social Security Administration addressed to her and an expired driver’s license were not sufficient. She cast a provisional ballot that then was not counted. A Voter Advancement Project study of the 2006 general election in Ohio and Florida found that many provisional ballots of eligible voters were rejected "simply because their envelopes were incomplete" according to election rules, since poll workers had given inadequate instructions.

The argument by the supporters of these voter ID laws that you can’t cash a check, board a plane or drive a car without a photo ID fails to recognize that not everyone flies or drives. And many seniors who lack photo IDs have direct deposit into accounts, no longer need to go anywhere to cash a check and no longer drive. Seniors who have expired driver’s licenses may be prohibited from voting without another government issued photo ID. None of the arguments in support of these voter ID laws address the extra burdens placed on seniors and low income, divorced and newly married women.

Whether or not these new voter ID laws are intended to disenfranchise women voters, the result is the same. They will disenfranchise many women voters. Equal access to the polls is paramount for all. Women and particularly women of color who fought so hard for suffrage and became the last to get that right may now be the first to lose it.

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