Last week’s local elections were the first contests in Iowa under a fully implemented voter ID law.
I’m an avid news consumer, so I know about the law and I brought my Iowa driver’s license to my polling place. I knew I would have to update my registration because I moved since the last election, so I brought the only mail I could find — a credit card solicitation and a postcard from one of the candidates for Iowa City Council.
Turns out those envelopes don’t work as proof of residence under a law passed by Iowa Democrats a decade before the voter ID law. A small team of very polite and helpful Johnson County poll workers told me I needed something like a utility bill or bank statement, which I don’t have.
Typical of an Iowa City renter, I change residences relatively frequently, but keep my parents’ home as my permanent mailing address. As a result, I don’t have any “official” mail at the house where I started renting a room a few months ago. Not to mention, it’s the current year and people do business through the internet, not through the postal service.
I was told I could cast a provisional ballot and then follow up with the auditor’s office, or bring in a registered voter from the same precinct who could attest to my residency.
I was in luck. I called my mom, who lives a few blocks away. She was able to meet me after work and serve as my attester.
Crisis averted, civic duty performed.
Because I follow and write about politics and government for a living — including columns and editorials about this very law — I initially felt a little bit stupid admitting that I had not studied the rules and planned ahead well enough to comply with the law.
But no, I remembered, it is politicians who should feel stupid.
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Local news organizations, my county auditor and the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office have done their best to make how-to-vote information accessible and easy to understand. However, the requirements are so stringent and specific that it’s impossible to adequately inform every Iowa voter.
As the voter ID law was considered, passed and implemented, critics repeatedly warned Iowans that certain populations would be disproportionately affected because they don’t have up-to-date identification or a consistent address — students, transients and elderly people, to name a few.
Indeed, those people face the biggest barriers to participation. They, not me, are most deserving of your empathy and activism.
I am the kind of person the system is “supposed to” work for — able-bodied, middle class, professional and a lifelong Iowan. I’m also a Republican, by the way, and I have supported some of the same politicians who championed the voter ID law.
I also have several advantages that made it possible for me to cast my ballot last week after my first attempt failed — I’m news literate, I have a flexible job and I happen to live in the same precinct as multiple family members.
This experience did not turn me against the 2017 voter ID law or the previously existing voter requirements. I was already opposed because it’s a violation of privacy and individual liberty — free people should not be told to carry government-issued papers to exercise their rights.
On top of that, it’s not clear voter ID is an effective solution to any real problem. The type of election fraud voter ID might safeguard against — individuals physically visiting polling locations and impersonating other people — has not been shown to be a widespread phenomenon.
In theory, voter ID was a bad idea. In practice, especially so.
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Updated Friday, Nov. 8: This column has been updated to note that proof of residency requirements are part of a law passed in 2007, and not part of the 2017 voter ID law.