Ms. Unger is the Founder, President and CEO of VoteRiders, a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a single mission: making sure all eligible citizens have the documents they need in order to vote.
After the 2010 midterm elections state after state began tightening voting restrictions. Among the most frequent changes were new laws requiring voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls.
By 2014, 34 states had passed laws requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls. Fifteen states now require voters to show a government-issued photo ID.
Civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters began challenging the new restrictions in state and federal court. Advocacy groups like the Fair Elections Legal Network and Project Vote lobbied legislators and promoted public awareness of the new laws.
But Unger, an attorney who calls election protection issues “my passion,” realized something was missing.
“Knowing the election protection field as well as I did, and do, I knew that there were no concerted efforts by any existing organizations to help voters get the documents they need for voter ID,” she said.
Kathleen Unger founded VoteRiders in 2012 to do just that.
“It’s the only organization that focuses exclusively on voter ID,” she told me in a telephone interview. “We don’t care whether— who somebody’s voting for and whom they’re supporting, we just want to make sure that citizens—eligible citizens— are able to vote.”
‘Common sense’ versus Reality
Many Americans don’t understand why some voters don’t have a driver’s license or other photo ID. “[They] think that, well, if you don’t have it you just go get it,” Unger said.
They may think a person with no ID “is just being lazy. Or they don’t care enough,” said Unger, but for many voters, including students, women and the elderly, “there are just extraordinary complications.”
Name Changes and Birth Certificates
To get a government-issued ID many states require a certified copy of your birth certificate.
This means voters who don’t have an official birth certificate are especially vulnerable, Unger explained. This group includes many African-Americans in their mid-fifties and older who were delivered by midwife in an era when many hospitals did not admit nonwhite mothers. It also includes what Unger calls “unofficial adoptions”— children given to relatives or other families to raise. Still other people may have had their birth records destroyed by fire or flood.
“This translates into just a huge number of people,” Unger said.
And the struggle to obtain a birth certificate can be nightmarish.
“99.9% of the time it really does require a lawyer,” she said. Applicants can expect to spend as much as $2,000 and make multiple court appearances. The entire process can take up to two years.
Women are also at risk.
“In addition, tens of millions of women are being challenged because 90% change their names on marriage and numerous states require an exact match between the name on their ID and the name in which they’re registered to vote,” Unger explained.
Women may be required to produce marriage licenses, divorce decrees or death certificates to prove their identity to state officials.
Adding to the frustrations of voters seeking ID are numerous state laws requiring applicants to submit a photo ID to get a copy of their vital documents— the very documents they need to get a photo ID.
Creating a Grassroots Network
To help voters navigate the bureaucratic maze, VoteRiders works with local organizations. These grassroots groups, called Partner Organizations, reach out to voters in a variety of ways: phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, educational events.
VoteRiders supports these Partner Organizations with a wide range of free resources. They offer online training for volunteers, downloadable posters and flyers to publicize events and detailed guides and questionnaires to explain their state’s ID requirements.
“We’re assisting them,” Unger explained. “So it’s ‘what do they need?'”
VoteRiders also recruits pro bono lawyers, called Attorney Voter Advocates, who help voters struggling to get a required ID. Attorney Voter Advocates offer the kind of legal assistance many low-income voters need, but could never afford.
One important service Attorney Voter Advocates can offer: most states that require an applicant to submit a photo ID to get a copy of their vital documents will accept the ID of an attorney representing them instead.
The First Voter ID Clinic: Houston, Texas
In September 2013 VoteRiders opened it’s first Voter ID Clinic in Houston, Texas, Working with Texas Partner Organizations Empower The Vote Texas and Texas Civic Engagement Table.
From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. a group of Attorney Voter Advocates, Voter Advocates and one Deputy Voter Registrar helped voters secure the documents they needed to vote under Texas law. The clinic also offered a voter education and training session, preparing new Voter Advocates to begin work in their communities.
In 2014 more Partner Organizations joined with VoteRiders and a pilot program was launched in Harris County, Texas.
Metro Houston, Houston’s public transportation agency, printed 27,000 handouts with key features of the Texas voter ID law and VoteRiders contact information and, said Unger, “posted them in every single bus line, every single rail car, and it was tremendously effective in finding voters with questions and potential document needs.”
VoteRiders also reached out to elected officials on the Federal, State and Local levels in Harris County and contacted precinct chairs for both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Tables filled with information on the new law were set up at church services and other public gatherings. Partner Organizations hosted presentations to explain the new law to the public. Volunteers were trained for voter outreach.
It was a first step toward VoteRiders’ ultimate goal: a nationwide network of Partner Organizations and volunteers dedicated to helping eligible citizens get the documents they need to vote.
“An unfunded mandate”
“Nobody is disputing the importance of the integrity of elections,” Unger told the Daily Pennsylvanian in 2013,“but basically what these states have done is impose an unfunded mandate on eligible, qualified American citizens without giving these citizens the assistance they need.”
That need continues as more states consider adopting voter ID laws.
Unger said the VoteRiders team is analyzing what they learned from their experiences in Texas and other states and drafting future plans.
“Based on our pilot program in Houston and Harris County, Texas, we know the importance of reaching out to local partners as early as possible,” she said.
Local groups interested in setting up Voter ID clinics, lawyers interested in becoming Attorney Voter Advocates and volunteers willing to train as Voter Advocates are all welcome to contact VoteRiders.
“We are open to anyone,” Unger said.