What It Feels Like to Be Disenfranchised by a Voter ID Law
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
This article is part of our series Why I Didn't Vote, a collection of essays exploring personal stories of voter disenfranchisement. Read more here.
When I was preparing to vote in 2016, my wife and I were living in north Nashville while I was playing football at Vanderbilt University. We registered to vote during a campus registration drive.* We had valid Georgia IDs, and assumed we could use those at the polls to satisfy Tennessee's voter ID law. (I had previously been registered in Georgia, but my family had since moved from that address, and it would have been fraudulent for me to register at their new address. I no longer had a permanent Georgia address and considered myself a Tennessee resident.) My wife was born in 1995 and I was born in 1996, so we were both really excited to participate in something bigger than a local primary for the first time.
Then I read an article in the Nashville Tennessean on the state's voter ID law, which had been changed in 2013. Unlike the previous version of this law, you had to have either a Tennessee state-issued ID or a federally-issued photo ID in order to vote. Under a previous version of this law, out-of-state IDs had been permissible, and even Memphis library cards after a lawsuit from some senior citizens. But that article made me realize: Oh man, I don't think I can comply with the law.
My wife and I were the a strange situation of being young and married, but still somewhat financially dependent on our parents. Our vehicles were registered in our parents' names, and we had Georgia driver's licenses. Registering the vehicles in Tennessee would have incurred a pretty significant tax burden, and getting a Tennessee driver's license, we were led to believe by our insurance agents, would be a problem for us to since then we'd be listed as drivers on our parents' cars without Georgia licenses. So we were in this space where we feared losing our transportation or having to incur a significant financial burden if we tried to get Tennessee driver's licenses. Even getting a non-driver's license ID from Tennessee would have required us to give up our Georgia licenses. By the time we figured this out, it would have cost hundreds of dollars to rush a passport just for the purposes of voting. We were young undergraduates. I was trying to survive on the NCAA's poverty stipend—I had to give up my meal plan to be able to afford rents in that city.
At this point, the 2016 election was dominating the campus conversation, and dominating the airwaves, and my wife and I felt very compelled to make our voices heard. But because of the voter ID law I wasn't sure if we were going to make that happen, so that weighed on us. On Election Day, my wife did not go to the polls, but I did. I had my valid Georgia driver's license. I had my Vanderbilt University student ID. I even had my voter registration card, a couple of utility bills, my lease, and a copy of my birth certificate. I have doubts about the prevalence of in-person voting fraud and therefore the necessity of voter ID laws—but there are three reasonable components to test for: identity, citizenship, and residency, which I felt I was able to supply with everything I had with me.
However, that did not meet the legal standard to vote in Tennessee. So I had to cast a provisional ballot, which was ultimately not counted.
I got kind of mad after that. I had fallen victim to a law that was specifically designed to make people like me not be able to vote. And I was frustrated because I felt like I'd satisfied the spirit of the voter ID law by showing my identity and my residency and my citizenship—the overly restrictive way in which the law was designed shows the bad faith that created it. The Tennessee GOP pushed for this restrictive voter ID law and it succeeded in keeping to at least two people from voting.
I didn't know it was possible, but I came away a little more cynical about the voter registration processes and the ways that various states make it harder to vote rather than easier. And I completely understand the idea of needing to secure the ballot. But in the case of Tennessee and other states, without a doubt voter ID laws are being used specifically target vulnerable groups of would-be voters. I really, truly came to realize that because of my experience.
Since the 2016 election, I wrapped up my college football career and my wife and I said goodbye to Nashville and we now live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I am doing a PhD in military history at the University of North Carolina. I'm also a member of the North Carolina National Guard, which is slightly ironic because had I been a member of the National Guard at the time of the 2016 election I would have been able to vote. There's not a voter ID law anywhere that will say no to my military ID. Gotta support the troops, right?
I've already voted in the 2018 election—I voted on the day that early voting started in my county. My wife is in Georgia, and she's requested her absentee ballot. But I want to call attention to what's happening in North Dakota right now where the new voter ID law requires there to be a street address that matches of voter registration. But the problem is, many Native American voters don't have street addresses on their IDs. And so the North Dakota voter ID law represents the potential wholesale disenfranchisement of a large minority in the state.
Voter fraud, which studies have shown to be very rare, is being used as a pretext to strip people of the vote. Events in North Dakota and stories such as mine really show that. I'd like to challenge state legislatures to start acting in good faith and taking common-sense measures to protect the vote while also encouraging it, rather than swindling Americans out of one of their most basic rights.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly said that the author had registered to vote online. After being contacted by the Daily Caller post-publication, he realized that that would have been impossible since Tennessee did not have online voter registration at the time. He registered during a campus registration drive. This piece has also been updated to clarify that his family had moved from his former Georgia address, making registration in that state impossible, and that getting a non-driver's license in Tennessee for the purposes of voting would not have solved his problems.