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The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification

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Jose Zuniga has lived and voted in Texas for decades. But Texas is one of 10 states that have adopted voter ID laws, and he does not have photo ID. Mr. Zuniga, who uses a wheelchair, cannot drive and must take three buses just to make the 20-mile trip to the nearest office that issues voter ID. If a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C. upholds Texas' law, Mr. Zuniga will face daunting obstacles simply to retain his right to vote.

Proponents of restrictive voter ID laws maintain that even if some citizens do not have photo ID, they can obtain one free of charge. But for Mr. Zuniga and many of the 1 in 10 eligible voters who lack the photo ID required by these laws, even a free ID can be extremely hard to acquire. As a new Brennan Center for Justice study shows, the journey to the nearest open office that issues free photo ID can be long and difficult.

In the 10 most restrictive voter ID states, there are more than 10 million eligible voters who live more than 10 miles from the nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days per week. Many live much further away. For example, some voters in southwest Texas must travel 175 miles to reach the nearest government office that offers photo IDs.

To make matters worse, nearly 500,000 eligible voters who live more than 10 miles from an ID-issuing office open more than two days a week do not have a car. Many of them may not have driver's licenses. The vast majority live in rural areas, where public transportation service is limited and rapidly declining. In fact, the states with the most restrictive voter ID laws are among the nation's worst providers of public transportation funding. Mississippi and Georgia are in the bottom 10, and Alabama is tied for last.

Additionally, many government ID-issuing offices do not keep regular business hours. In Wisconsin, Alabama and Mississippi, fewer than half of all state ID-issuing offices are open five days a week. None are open on weekends. And some offices maintain truly unusual schedules. For example, the driver's license office in Woodville, Miss. is open only on the second Thursday of each month.

Many of the offices with limited hours are located in rural areas with high concentrations of people of color, who are less likely to have photo ID than the rest of the population. In 11 Alabama counties within the rural "black belt," there are over 60,000 eligible black voters, but no driver's license office is open more than two days per week. Along parts of the Texas-Mexico border spanning 32 counties, there are 80,000 Latino eligible voters but only two such ID offices.

People of color are also more than twice as likely as white voters not to have vehicle access, compounding the difficulty they will have obtaining free voter ID. This holds true in urban areas as well as rural areas. In the Knoxville, Tenn. and Rock Hill, S.C. city centers, which are home to large black populations, 18,000 eligible voters do not have vehicle access. Neither city's public bus system services the nearest ID office, which is more than five miles outside the city center.

But even if all the transportation obstacles were removed, the reality is that "free" photo ID can be very expensive. With the exception of Kansas and Pennsylvania, voter ID states do not waive the cost of birth certificates or the other documents required to obtain free photo ID. Birth certificates can cost as much as $30. And the 52 percent of voting-age women whose birth certificates do not reflect their current surname may need to spend up to $40 for their marriage license if they need photo ID.

This is a steep price to pay for a "free" ID card, and not every American can afford it.

To be sure, many can. In fact, almost 90 percent of American voting-age citizens have some form of current, government-issued photo ID.

But more than 20 million Americans do not. Making voter IDs free does not address or resolve the significant barriers these voters face in obtaining one. It does not make it easier to find transportation to an ID-issuing office, and it does not make it easier to pay for the supporting documentation required to obtain ID. Unless states with voter identification laws address these barriers now, many eligible citizens could lose their opportunity to vote this November.

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