Florence Bessing has been voting for a long, long time without a problem. But the 95-year-old needed lawyers to find an exemption to Wisconsin's new photo I.D. voter law to cast her ballot this year. Bessing is lucky. Hundreds of thousands of others in Wisconsin, and in the 10 additional states that have passed such laws in the past year, may find themselves disenfranchised. (For the moment in Wisconsin, the law has been blocked by the courts.)
As Scott Keyes learned when he traveled to Wisconsin, Bessing gave up driving when she was 90 because her vision was going. Her license expired. To obtain a photo I.D., she needed a birth certificate. But she doesn't have one because she (probably) was born with the assistance of a midwife at a time when birth certificates weren't issued in such circumstances.
A study by John Pawasarat of the Employment and Training Institute, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee concluded in 2005:
Many adults do not have either a drivers license or a photo ID. An estimated 23 percent of persons aged 65 and over do not have a Wisconsin drivers license or a photo ID. The population of elderly persons 65 and older without a drivers license or a state photo ID totals 177,399, and of these 70 percent are women. While racial data was not available on the state population with photo IDs, 91 percent of the state’s elderly without a Wisconsin drivers license are white. An estimated 98,247 Wisconsin residents ages 35 through 64 also do not have either a drivers license or a photo ID. [...]The impact of the photo I.D. law in Wisconsin and elsewhere is clear from these statistics. Whether or not the intent is to keep certain population groups away from the polls, the outcome is definitely that.
Statewide, the percent of Wisconsin residents with a valid drivers license is 80 percent for males and 81 percent for females. For African-Americans, only 45 percent of males and 51 percent of females have a valid drivers license. Hispanics show 54 percent of males and only 41 percent of females with a valid drivers license.
Wendy R. Weiser and Lawrence Norden at Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law have analyzed the situation nationwide:
These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election. [...]The estimate of those affected? Three million.
States have changed their laws so rapidly that no single analysis has assessed the overall impact of such moves. Although it is too early to quantify how the changes will impact voter turnout, they will be a hindrance to many voters at a time when the United States continues to turn out less than two thirds of its eligible citizens in presidential elections and less than half in midterm elections.