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Voter access: ‘Bringing in people who haven’t had a voice’

Cecilia Yarnto scrutinizes the forms she needs to fill out to get her identification cards restored during an Oct. 4 Fairfax County Spread the Vote event at Rising Hope United Methodist Church. (Patricia Sullivan/The Washington Post)

Earlier versions of this article said, incorrectly, that Virginia requires photo identification to register to vote. The state requires photo ID to cast a ballot in person — voters without ID can cast provisional ballots but must then submit proof of ID. Some versions incorrectly stated that the ID must be government-issued, and that Virginia election offices provide a free photo ID card to anyone with proof of address and a Social Security Number. In fact, Virginia voters can present ID cards that are not government-issued, such as an employee or student photo ID. Virginia election offices provide free photo ID to registered voters, who must provide their address and Social Security number. The article has been corrected.

Out-of-work electrician Robert Gum had his Virginia driver’s license suspended and couldn’t afford the fee to reinstate it. Cecilia Yarnto, a Liberian immigrant in her 80s, lost her IDs a few years ago when she was in the hospital. Crain Thomson, a homeless man who sings in his church choir, had his identification stolen one night while he slept on the street.

All of them are eligible and interested in voting in the Nov. 6 midterm elections. But they and about 200,000 other registered voters in Virginia don’t have a photo identification card, which the state requires for voters to cast ballots.

Nationwide, an estimated 21 million registered voters are in similar straits.

A 15-month-old nonprofit group, Spread the Vote, is trying to fix the problem in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Texas, and plans to expand to a half-dozen other states next year.

The 2018 midterm elections have triggered a nationwide surge in voter registration campaigns. No matter where Americans go this fall — to the grocery store, church, school activities or farmers markets — someone is trying to register them to vote.

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NextGen America, a progressive group that focuses on youth, said it has registered 200,000 college students in 11 states so far in 2018. Political parties, nonpartisan groups such as the League of Women Voters, and both conservative and liberal groups are trying to find and register more voters before the registration deadline, which is Monday in Virginia.

But Spread the Vote does something different. It focuses on helping would-be voters secure the identification their states require — seeking out residents who are poor, homeless or recently released from jails and prisons, guiding them through the paperwork and paying the cost. The group, which gets its money mostly from foundations, searches for would-be voters by going to housing projects, food banks and churches that provide meals. It is also organizing rides to the polls on Election Day.

“We’re bringing in people who haven’t had a voice for a long, long time,” said Carol Geargeoura, Spread the Vote’s director for the Springfield-to-Alexandria region. “When you see the impact on them once they get the ID — how is it we haven’t done this all these years? They’ve been forgotten.”

Voting has grown more complicated in many parts of the United States in recent years: 20 states require a photo ID, and an additional 14 require some form of identification. Even those who registered and voted in the past may find themselves having to re-register; nearly 16 million people were purged from voter rolls between 2014 and 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found in a nationwide study released this summer.

Virginia election offices provide a free photo identification card to registered voters, who must provide their Social Security number and address. Getting a new Social Security card requires a driver’s license, birth certificate, passport or other documents — and those documents often cost ­money.

Cristelle Brown, Virginia director for Spread the Vote, said she’s encountered people from rural Virginia who never had a birth certificate or driver’s license. The organization has added more than 200 voters to the commonwealth’s rolls this year, getting new or replacement photo ID cards for 170 of them.

“They took care of my court costs, and the reinstatement fee at the DMV,” said Alexandria native Jim Miller, 48, who lost his driver’s license after he was unable to pay his car insurance. The fee to get it back was $585.

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When Miller’s passport expired, he lost his last piece of photo identification. To make matters worse, Miller said, he got in trouble with the law and served time for a felony. Other costs piled up. His voting rights were restored in 2008, he said, but he struggled to navigate government offices where he could secure new identification.

“A lot of things that used to be simple for me — a change of address form, that sort of thing — have become difficult because of depression and anxiety,” Miller said.

He and others noted that photo IDs are often needed to get a job, apply for housing, buy a train ticket, open a bank or cellphone account, sign up for food banks and accomplish myriad other tasks.

“The money alone is a big deal, but our clients have much bigger problems than just voting,” Geargeoura said. Having a photo identification card is “that key to the door to the world you have been excluded from.”

That’s why Spread the Vote volunteers give clients a ride to Social Security or motor vehicles offices, or courthouses, to help them get the records they need. Miller’s caseworker took him to a UPS store to make copies and use a computer.

“One client reached a lifetime limit of 10 Social Security cards — why? She’s homeless, stuff gets stolen,” Geargeoura said. “We have to be creative. . . . We have to figure out who issued a birth certificate 50, 60 years ago. One client remembered a job he had three years ago, so we got his W2, which allowed us to apply for a Social Security card.”

At a recent Spread the Vote event at Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church in Fairfax County, Ava Gregory, 62, watched her 2-year-old granddaughter Malayah eat pizza and cake.

“My driver’s license is going to expire in January, and this is a big help because I didn’t have the money to renew it,” Gregory said. “I’ve never voted before — I just had my rights restored because I had a felony back in the 1990s. Voting is something I’ve always wanted to do.”

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