The Atlanta Objective: Free ID is a Myth
It should be easy to get everyone ID in Georgia. It's not. That's not an accident.
The half-life of a legal ID for people experiencing homelessness is about three months.
People steal them, because people steal anything on the street. It’s stuff in a knapsack to rip off in the middle of the night. Someone might lose it after cops raid an encampment. Losing it just adds bureaucratic hell to the regular kind.
Fun fact: if you find someone’s lost license, you can drop it into a mailbox and the Post Office will deliver it to the address, free. Which is great … if you still live there.
When I started working on social problems for the business community in Atlanta, I was shocked at how many people didn’t have state-issued identification. Every other person sleeping around Woodruff Park downtown had lost their card, or more often had it stolen. Every once in a while, someone would tell me that the Fulton County Jail kept it along with their stuff after an arrest, which I found hard to believe. Once.
The new elections law raises the requirements for ID to vote. In principle, I’m indifferent to that. It should be a negligible burden. But it’s really not.
There are entire ministries devoted to replacing ID in Atlanta, because the process is complicated and difficult. Losing an ID effectively traps someone on the street because housing providers require ID to obtain shelter.
A few years ago, I wanted to create a digital vault to keep authentication documents, secured on a blockchain and unlocked using a fingerprint or retinal scan. I thought I was so clever. I started meeting with the folks at Georgia’s Department of Driver’s Services to get started.
Nope. Their staff attorneys shut me down.
They told me that Georgia law explicitly forbids state agencies from using biometric markers as a means of obtaining a state ID. Apparently, this stems from “mark of the beast” legislation, which is why you no longer need to give your fingerprints to get a driver’s license. The corollary here: it means you generally have to pay someone to get proof that you are who you say you are.
Crossroads Community Ministries, downtown in Atlanta, assists with about 3,000 state-issued ID and birth certificate requests a year. Getting a birth certificate is relatively easy for someone born at Grady Memorial a mile away down Peachtree Street. It takes a week for someone born in Florida. It can take about three months for New York or Minnesota or Texas.
“Some people let their ID expire because the cost is the difference between food or shelter,” said Dominic Heard, who runs the ID mission at Crossroads Cooperative Ministry. “I was trying to do a birth certificate today. Normally online they’ll ask you questions to verify your identity, but with a lot of our people they’ve moved around so much they can’t answer the questions. And then I hit one in San Antonio, where it skipped straight to asking for photo ID.”
Yes, the birth certificate website you need to get photo ID was demanding photo ID to get a birth certificate. Whither Texas, Georgia. Shades, I think, of how Alabama shut down a bunch of their drivers license offices in the Black Belt after raising voter ID requirements.
No state offers a free birth certificate. The cheapest is North Dakota, at $8. Michigan is $34. The average is around $20. Case workers regularly request two or three copies of birth certificates. For people wrestling with chronic homelessness, the odds are they’ll need a spare in under a year.
As you’re thinking about this ID stuff, keep in mind that roughly one in forty Georgians have nothing. That is, they have an annual income between $700 and zero. One in 16 people in metro Atlanta have less than $10,000 in annual income.
So, sure. We’re talking about people who are having trouble keeping a roof over their head. Most people aren’t struggling like this. But virtually everyone you see on the street is a citizen with the same right to vote that you might have. Keep in mind that about four out of ten people who live in metro Atlanta were born in another state and one in seven were born in another country.
“But the law says we can get a free ID in Georgia, right?” Well. Sort of.
Free means that the expenditure of time to get one doesn’t count, and that you have a photo identity document or approved non-photo identity document that includes full legal name and date of birth. There’s nothing obvious about what counts as “approved” anywhere I can find it. I called DeKalb County’s voter registrar to ask and they sent me to their flak instead.
Now complicate this with name changes.
My mother, born and married in Massachusetts, divorced in California, lived in Kentucky for a while before moving here to Georgia. Her drivers license in Kentucky didn't match her birth certificate because she kept her married name, but had no legal change-of-name paperwork and nothing in her divorce decree about names.
It took a $200 name change, 18 months and the intervention of a state rep to get an ID she could use to vote here.
It’s hard not to look at all of this as intentionally convoluted. Asking for an ID to vote seems perfectly reasonable. We can’t ignore the rest of this stuff.