09/12/2012 12:17 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

Kafka's America -- or, Getting a Photo ID

As election season heats up, state photo ID laws are in the news. Reading some of the coverage, though, it can be hard to fully appreciate the significance of the issues they raise and the potentially enormous impact they can have.

These laws, in place or pending in 44 states, strictly define the types of identification required to gain access to the voting booth. Proponents of such laws claim they are just trying to protect the integrity of the ballot by preventing fraud--surely a worthy goal. They also note that state IDs are issued for free; thus, presumably, obtaining one should not be a problem for anyone with a legitimate right to vote.

But while the ID may be free, actually getting it is anything but. To understand this point, consider an actual example, from a state where advocates are currently challenging the newly passed law in court. In Wisconsin, to get a state-issued ID, you need to prove: name and date of birth; identity; citizenship or appropriate immigration status; and residency. You also need to provide a social security number.

In turn, to meet each of those requirements, you need even more evidence. One of the few ways to prove your name and date of birth is with a birth certificate. If you don't have it, you can order it--for a fee of $20 or more. (And, if you were born out of state, that state may require you to travel there to apply in person.) You'll also need a photo ID. If you don't have one--which, remember, is your problem to begin with -- you'll need to present two of any of these documents: an employee ID, a passport, a checkbook, a credit card, a health insurance card, a recent utility bill, or a recent traffic ticket. In other words, you'll need to have a job, the possibility of international travel, a bank account, health care, housing ,or access to a car. If you lack two of these, you're out of luck.

Let's move on to identity. To prove that, you'll need: a driver's license, military discharge papers, a U.S. government ID, a marriage certificate, or certified copy of divorce; a Social Security card; an additional document to prove your name and date of birth, but that you haven't already used for that purpose (see above); or a DHS/TSA transportation worker identification credential.

Got it so far? Two down, three to go.

You'll need to prove your immigration status by showing that you are a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, or that you have conditional permanent residence status or legal presence in the U.S. Acceptable proof includes: a birth certificate (see above); U.S. passport; certificate of citizenship (you can get it for $600); a certificate of naturalization (a mere $345); or a TSA/DHS transportation worker ID credential.

To prove your residency in Wisconsin, you'll need evidence of: a job (paycheck or stub); bank account (a bank statement that's at least 30 days old); rental property in your name (recent utility or landline phone bill); or homeownership (mortgage documents for residential property in the state).

But if you're homeless and have a relationship with a shelter or other social service provider, you may be in luck on that specific requirement. According to a new policy, you may be able to use a letter from the provider stating that the provider agrees to act as your place of residence and receive an ID card in the mail on your behalf.

Finally, you'll also need a social security card. To get it... you'll likely need a photo ID.

Sound like a catch-22? That's because it is. Last December, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, ACLU, ACLU of Wisconsin, and Dechert LLP joined forces to challenge the law, which went into effect February 21, 2012. Plaintiffs in the case include: A 52 year-old homeless veteran whose only photo ID, a veteran ID issued by the VA, will not be accepted at the polls; an 84 year-old woman who has voted in every election since 1948 and is a long-time member of her village board, but who lacks a valid birth certificate to obtain a state-issued ID; and 19 year-old African American man who cannot afford the fee to obtain a copy of his birth certificate, which he must produce to get a state-issued ID. The case is still pending.

Wisconsin is just one of 44 states that currently have or are now considering voter ID laws that will make it difficult (or even impossible) for many eligible voters to cast their ballots later this year. As a result, some five million voters could be disenfranchised. Their purported purpose is to protect against voter fraud. That sounds reasonable at first, until you realize there is zero credible evidence of widespread, or even significant, voter fraud. In fact, one study found that a voter is more likely to be struck by lightning than cheat the system.

In Florida, another state with a photo ID law, Meghan Martinez, a Ph.D. student in history at Florida State University, told me that it took her three visits to the State Department of Motor Vehicles to renew her drivers' license--something she used to be able to do online. Among other things, she needed to obtain and present a birth certificate. She had to make these visits during the DMV's standard business hours, requiring her to take time off work. She calculated that, in total, she spent $100 in fees and lost another $168 in wages.

Martinez says: "I'm educated. I have access to resources. I have a home and a car and the ability to take time off of work to get these things done. I'd hate to think that I could be turned away from the polls come November just because I didn't have these things."

These laws have impact far beyond voting rights. Without a valid ID, it can be virtually impossible to get housing, employment, or government assistance. Denial of access to the ballot box compounds these problems, and further marginalizes and isolates those affected, removing the ability to participate in the political process through which such laws are enacted.

At a time of growing income inequality, and growing influence of money in politics, these trends will only get worse if we fail to act.