I first met Cinderria, an 18-year-old woman of color, in a library in Downtown Madison. She approached the table marked “Voter ID Assistance” and explained that with the 2016 presidential primary only a few months away, and despite several trips to the DMV, she still didn’t have a valid ID as mandated by Wisconsin’s strict new laws. It turned out she needed a Social Security card but wasn’t sure how to obtain one. Proponents of voter ID laws don’t want to acknowledge that Cinderria’s case is far from unusual. Experts project that in Wisconsin alone, 300,000 eligible voters lack the ID necessary to cast a ballot. Across the country, 32 states have some form of voter ID law, creating a crisis of disenfranchisement not seen since the civil rights era. These ID laws don’t touch all groups equally: Voters of color, like Cinderria, are hit hardest. The elderly, students and low-income voters also are disproportionately affected. (A new study published in the Journal of Politics, for instance, found that strict ID laws lower African-American, Latino, Asian-American and multiracial American turnout.)
States that have implemented voter ID laws have shown little to no interest in helping their citizens comply. And the advocacy organizations that oppose these laws have few resources for direct voter assistance. Instead, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have focused on challenging voter ID mandates in court. That’s essential, but it’s not enough. As court battles proceed, we must acknowledge our collective obligation to voters like Cinderria by investing in on-the-ground, in-person support.
Before the 2016 election, a group of us in Madison recognized the problem and got to work, partnering with local organizations such as the League of Women Voters and NAACP. As one coalition, we collaborated with social service agencies, churches, food pantries, employers, schools and election administrators.