Local nonprofit takes fight against voter ID laws national as presidential election nears.
By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times
Since 2008, 31 states have introduced laws that would require citizens to present state-sanctioned photo identification before they would be allowed to vote in state and federal elections. While proponents say the laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud, critics charge that the new legislation is a blatant attempt to discourage participation.
One local woman has made it her goal to ensure that every eligible voter in America will be able to cast a vote on November 6. Kathleen Unger is a Harvard Law School graduate and worked in entertainment law for 15 years. But starting in 2002, Unger took up the issue of election integrity, founding and editing a blog called Election Preparedness.
This year, she founded VoteRiders, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public benefit corporation dedicated to ensuring that vulnerable voters will be able to get their voter IDs in time for the election. California has no such voter ID requirement.
“There is a critical mass evolving with these voter ID laws that will absolutely prevent certain people from voting in future elections,” Unger said. “Our short-term goal is to help get every voter legitimate IDs in the next 60 days.”
The strict new laws have the potential to disenfranchise some 11 percent of American voters, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.
Proponents of the surge in voter ID laws say the legislation is required to prevent voter fraud at the ballot box. But widespread evidence of voter fraud has been difficult to find. A study by The Republican National Lawyers Association found that, nationally, 340 cases of voter fraud had occurred over a 10-year period out of hundreds of millions of ballots cast.
Election integrity organizations have said the new laws disproportionately affect students, minorities, the poor and the elderly who might not have access to birth certificates or the funds or wherewithal to apply for state-sanctioned voter IDs. Some people’s records have been lost in fires; some people were delivered by mid-wife and a birth certificate was never issued. Many opponents of the laws say they are targeting voters who demographically tend to vote for the Democratic Party.
Unger’s cause caught the idea of another well-known Malibu social activist. Barbra Streisand became concerned about the new laws and took them to be a political call to action.
“The new laws requiring U.S. citizens to produce photo IDs at the poll are designed to deprive elderly and minority citizens of the precious right to cast their vote,” Streisand said, in what was called a nonpartisan statement published on her website and Facebook pages. “These regressive laws are themselves the most dangerous voter fraud threatening American democracy.”
Streisand then went on to direct concerned citizens to two key nonpartisan organizations that help protect the right to vote and urges concerned activists to lend a hand. One is the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who run an Election Protection Hotline, a national, toll-free number that will direct assistance to voters. The other is The Brennan Center for Justice, which is providing up-to-date, comprehensive information and pro bono help to citizens who have trouble obtaining a photo ID.
“We have been focusing a lot of our effort in Pennsylvania,” Unger said. “It is so exciting to see how the people of that state are now really engaged in fighting their new law (Pennsylvania passed a very restrictive law detailing voter ID requirements last March, which has been challenged legally). One hundred seventy organizations are working there now and we are educating voters and helping them get their necessary paperwork.”
The new laws have met with mixed success. Texas’ photo ID requirement was stuck down as discriminatory to poor and minority voters by a federal court, while Indiana’s law was upheld.
In Pennsylvania, it is estimated some 758,000 voters are vulnerable. One such voter was Christie Rosser in Philadelphia. When she heard of the controversy, she checked with her local registrar and learned that someone had stolen her voter identity in 2009.
“How was someone able to do that if they don’t have my birth certificate or social security card,” Rosser asked in a phone interview. “I had to go to the state department in Harrisburg (the state’s capitol) to start an investigation.”
Fortunately, Rosser was able to get an ID card that will allow her to vote in November. But Unger says there are currently 32 million voting-age women in the U.S. who don’t have IDs that reflect their current name.
“To correct these errors in order to obtain proper IDs can be expensive,” Unger said. “In Wisconsin, it can cost $200 to correct an error on a birth certificate.”
Unger feels nationwide efforts are beginning to have an effect. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments last week to deny implementation of the law passed last March. Their decision is expected to be expedited and handed down before the November election.
“It’s critical people understand how big a deal this issue is,” Unger said. “Generally, people have until October 6 to make sure their IDs are updated. If you have family or friends in states that have passed these laws, call them, speak to them. Because everyone deserves the right to vote.”