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Can We Still Vote?

Without a valid photo ID, many older Americans will not be allowed to vote this year

The midwife at the 1949 home birth in rural South Carolina delivered a healthy baby girl but didn't file a birth certificate. Donna Jean Suggs grew up, got a Social Security card and found work as a home health aide. Try as she might, though, she couldn't get a birth certificate. That meant she couldn't get a driver's license or register to vote.

See also: Voters' champion Brenda Williams.

"I fought with them and fought with them," she said of the local and state officials. "I prayed and prayed." In time, said Suggs, 62, who lives in Sumter, S.C., "I gave up on things" — like voting.

Having a driver's license or photo identification card is commonplace for most Americans, but about 11 percent of adult citizens — more than 21 million people — lack a valid, government-issued photo ID, according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

Increasingly, this puts their right to vote at risk. A year ago, only Georgia and Indiana required photo ID cards to vote. Since then, Kansas and Tennessee have joined the list, and similar laws in an additional five states have not yet been implemented.

The U.S. Justice Department blocked a law in Texas as a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and a federal court upheld the move, though the state says it plans to appeal; the justice department also put laws in Mississippi and South Carolina on hold as potential violations of the Voting Rights Act; Pennsylvania's law won't be implemented this year, pending possible appeal to the state supreme court; and Wisconsin's law was declared unconstitutional in March 2012 — a decision the state says it plans to appeal. In seven more states with photo ID laws, voters who are unable to show a photo ID are still allowed to vote if they can meet certain other criteria.

"What's new is the no-photo-no-vote" laws, said Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow specializing in elections at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. "The 2010 elections' big shift toward Republican control of state legislatures was certainly a piece of that."

Older voters most affected

The trend alarms voting advocates like Lawrence Norden, acting director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, who said photo ID laws hit older people, the poor, African Americans and students the hardest. "This is the first time in decades that we have seen a reversal in what has been a steady expansion of voting rights in the United States," Norden said. "There's no question that citizens over 65 will be particularly impacted. The older you get, the more likely you won't have an ID."

Nearly one in five citizens over 65 — about 8 million — lacks a current, government-issued photo ID, a 2006 Brennan Center study found. Most people prove their eligibility to vote with a driver's license, but people over 65 often give up their license and don't replace it with the state-issued ID that some states offer non-driving residents. People over 65 also are more likely to lack birth certificates because they were born before recording births was standard procedure.

Strict new photo ID laws could make voting this year more difficult for millions of voters, if the new laws stand, according to the Brennan Center.

In the states with strict photo ID voting laws, voters who show up without photo IDs generally are allowed to vote a provisional ballot that is counted only if the voter brings a photo ID to a government elections office within a few days, and may not be counted at all unless the election is close.

Next: Will strict photo ID laws cut down on voter fraud? »

Seven other states ask voters for a photo ID — but will allow people without them to cast regular ballots under certain circumstances, such as showing other forms of identification, signing an affidavit or being vouched for by a voter with ID. These states are Alabama, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan and South Dakota. (A new law in Alabama will require photo IDs beginning in 2014, but the state has not yet asked the Justice Department to review the law for compliance with the Voting Rights Act.)

Goal to reduce fraud

Sixteen states have laws requiring voters to show a non-photo ID at the polls. Acceptable documents vary by state, ranging from a voter registration or Social Security card to a utility bill or gun permit.

Supporters of strict photo ID laws argue that since most people have or can get IDs, requiring them will cut down on voter fraud and raise public confidence in elections.

Hans A. von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former commissioner of the Federal Election Commission, disputes the Brennan Center predictions: "I don't think photo ID laws are going to affect people over 50 at all." States that require photo IDs are making them available free, removing any barriers to voting, he said. "Five years from now, after the laws are in place without problems, people will say, 'Why did we make such a big deal about this?' "

Opponents warn that strict photo ID laws will depress turnout and increase cynicism in elections if eligible voters are turned away simply because they lack a photo ID. While an ID itself may be free, voters — especially women — often must purchase copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees and other documents to show name changes.

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said photo ID laws would only stop someone from impersonating a voter. "It's more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls."

Voter laws under fire

The Obama reelection campaign, the Congressional Black Caucus and Democratic groups have been mobilizing to fight the new voter ID laws. AARP Foundation Litigation has been involved in lawsuits challenging voting laws in several states, including an Indiana photo ID law case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Among those blocked from voting by that Indiana statute in 2008 were a dozen nuns in their 80s and 90s from South Bend, Ind. The high court upheld the law though it left open the possibility of a later challenge.

"AARP continues to be very troubled by voter ID laws," said Daniel B. Kohrman, an attorney with the AARP Foundation. "An older person whose passport has expired, whose driver's license has expired, who has to go to the trouble of digging out a birth certificate may just say to heck with it."

State AARP offices are working to inform voters and help them get the documents they need to obtain IDs. AARP supports measures making voter ID laws more fair for older people, including the use of sworn statements to affirm a voter's identity at the polls; advance training of poll workers; and free voter IDs for registered voters and others for whom cost is a burden. Groups on both sides will be closely watching the polls in November with an eye to future lawsuits.

As for Donna Jean Suggs, her story has a happy ending. Thanks to the persistence of a physician and a lawyer in Sumter, Suggs finally got a state-issued photo ID last summer.

"Now I can vote," Suggs said. "I have a whole new life."

Also of interest: Voter education guide to the 2012 election.

Marsha Mercer is a freelance journalist in Northern Virginia.