The escalating war on voting rights in the United States has come with a lot of discussion about voter identification, which is rightly pointed to as a form of voter suppression. Requiring people to have identification in order to vote creates another barrier to taking their rightful place at the polls, and means that voters are being disenfranchised. Inevitably, poor folks, people of colour, and people with disabilities are the most likely to be harmed by such laws; take, for example, the situation in Philadelphia, where it’s estimated that 18% of voters don’t have the documentation they need to vote.
But, as Hannah Jane Sassaman reminded readers on Reproductive Health Reality Check, identification in the United States is about more than voting. When states make it more difficult to obtain identification, and start requiring identification for more services, this creates additional burdens on already marginalised populations, and it can make those populations extremely vulnerable. It’s important to talk about these issues and bring them into the larger light, because this is an important subject.
I was born in the United States in a hospital setting, and a birth certificate was duly issued, though my name was not spelled correctly. My Social Security card application was filed at the same time, and consequently both records had the same misspelling, which I ended up retaining on subsequent government identification obtained with these documents. I’ve had a passport since I was a baby, and I got a driver’s license at 16. These identifications were easy for me to get because I had the key documentation needed to prove citizenship and successfully complete applications.
As soon as I changed my name, I immediately changed my record with Social Security and the state’s office of vital statistics to ensure that my new Social Security card and birth certificate would match, before changing over my other identifications. I am, in short, not the kind of person who’s at risk from the identity crackdown; I have citizenship documents correctly identifying me and (finally) spelling my name correctly, I have multiple forms of valid photo identification obtained with these documents, and I know where all the original copies of my citizenship documentation are.
But not everyone has the privileges I do. In 2006, the Brennan Center conducted a study asking participants four questions:
1) Do you have a current, unexpired government-issued ID with your picture on
it, like a driver’s license or a military ID?
2) If yes, does this photo ID have both your current address AND your current
name (as opposed to a maiden name) on it?
3) Do you have any of the following citizenship documents (U.S. birth
certificate/U.S. passport/U.S. naturalization papers) in a place where you can
quickly find it if you had to show it tomorrow?
4) If yes, does [that document] have your current name on it (as opposed to a
The answers to these questions were alarming. 13 million respondents could not quickly access their citizenship documents, and those who have that documentation often have versions with outdated names. Less than 50% of women respondents of voting age had birth certificates with their current legal names, for example. Unsurprisingly, income was a direct predictor in whether people had access to citizenship documents and whether those documents were updated with their current names; people earning less than $25,000 annually are twice as likely to lack documentation.
The organisation estimated that 21 million people in the US didn’t have current photo identification, predominantly low-income people, seniors, people with disabilities, and people of colour. Those who had photo identification often had outdated information with incorrect names, addresses, or both.
Sassaman points out that this issue is particularly acute for immigrants:
Many of the undocumented immigrants who came to the United States for work didn’t have ID at home, either, because their parents were too poor to secure birth certificates and other documents for them at home. When they travel to the United States for work, they don’t have the consular papers or passports that other immigrants have, and they can’t get GEDs or marry. If deported, they are more likely to be separated from their families.
What does it mean when you don’t have identification? Well, as established, it can be a real problem at the polls in states demanding identification to vote or in the process of developing voter ID laws. It also spans into every other aspect of life, though; you need identification to open bank accounts, start lines of credit, open accounts at utilities, receive government benefits, legally drive, fly, leave the country, sign for many kinds of loans, and work. If you’re doing these things without identification, you run the risk of serious penalties, and you’re also very vulnerable; for example, someone working without documents can be easily exploited by an employer.
The pressure for identification pushes people to alternative finance and a shady underworld aimed at providing them the services they want…for a price. You can get a loan if you absolutely need to from an alternative lender, but the interest rate charged will be absurdly high, and you’ll have limited legal recourse. You can open an account with a utility, if you’re prepared to put down a massive deposit. You can seek cosigners in the hopes that they will help a loan go through, but you won’t get the best terms.
This is why it needs to be easier for people to access and update their identification. There are too many mechanisms for dehumanising people who don’t have identification, and for making it extremely difficult for them to perform day-to-day tasks.
In the process of changing my name, I had a firsthand glimpse at the process involved not just in changing your legal name, but also in updating all the documentation that went along with it. It requires a certain degree of literacy as well as money; I spent several hundred dollars on the process. Many people aren’t in a position to do that, and they shouldn’t have to be; barriers to identification create a second class of people who don’t exist in the eyes of the law, and there’s no reason to keep the bar so high. Unless, of course, a tier of people unable to access basic services is exactly what you want.