Happy Anniversary! 10 Years of VoteRiders

In the 10 years since VoteRiders was founded, the national debate about voter ID laws has only become louder and more polarized. Today, more Americans than ever before live in a state with a voter ID law. Amid this ever-growing need for our work, VoteRiders has proudly maintained its nonpartisan, laser focus on voter ID education and assistance by helping eligible millions of citizens to understand these laws and get the ID – and confidence – they need to vote.

Along the way, our staff has grown from one person, our founder, to 18 dedicated people based in eight states and the District of Columbia. Our efforts and impact have been constantly supported by an ever-widening and invaluable circle of Board Members, Advisors, Trustees, partner organizations, donors, and volunteers.

But the real story of VoteRiders’ 10th Anniversary starts well before April 6, 2012, when the organization was officially incorporated as a nonpartisan nonprofit.

VoteRiders’ founder Kathleen Unger remembers vividly the moment in 2008 when Barbara Arnwine, the then Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, revealed some of the horrifyingly insidious ways that at-risk voters were dissuaded from casting a valid ballot. Having spent decades as a nonprofit leader and political activist, Kathleen was immediately moved to volunteer in support of election protection work. She says

“Leading up to the 2010 election, I heard candidates in many states publicly supporting strict voter ID laws. That’s when I knew there would be a critical gap. Millions of Americans were going to be disenfranchised unless there were a robust nationwide effort to provide them with assistance in securing a valid ID.”

“I was instinctively propelled by the injurious impact of these restrictions on the dignity – the very identity inherent in the citizenship – of people and their fundamental right and freedom to vote. I was truly outraged by stories like the 12 elderly nuns who were turned away from their polling place in Indiana because they did not have a current government-issued photo ID. It was heartbreaking. It still is.”

“I spent about a year conducting research and speaking to people across the country to learn if existing organizations could provide the requisite on-the-ground help for at-risk voters. None of them were able to offer the necessary in-person voter ID service and expertise. So, I decided to create VoteRiders with the mission of ensuring every American voter would have the ID and information they needed to cast a ballot with confidence.”

From the beginning, Kathleen knew that the key to VoteRiders’ strategy would be to work with, through, and in support of partners, especially in voter ID states with highly competitive elections. The first state was Pennsylvania, where in 2012 there was an enormous amount of local activism around the then voter ID law and its impact. This same vision has guided VoteRiders’ growth ever since. As Kathleen puts it, “You need caring and determined voters if your mission is to educate and help people with voter ID.”

In 2013, when the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County vs. Holder decision, Texas (among other states) moved immediately to implement a restrictive voter ID law that previously would have required Justice Department clearance.

Kathleen and an expanding coalition of partners in and around Houston organized VoteRiders’ first Voter ID Clinic in 2013, which served the dual purpose of helping vulnerable voters and training volunteers. Kathleen recounts a key lesson that emerged from this on-the-ground work in Texas and the 2014 election that followed.

“After the 2013-2014 election cycle, I realized that more people had asked us to confirm whether their ID was valid for voting than had asked for help to secure an ID. Then Rice University and the University of Houston released a study showing that a net 9% of the registered voters in the most competitive Texas Congressional District were so confused that they didn’t vote even though they had a valid ID.”

Subsequent studies from the University of Wisconsin and Stanford corroborated this finding – people who are unsure about what IDs are acceptable are discouraged from voting at all.

“I started VoteRiders knowing about the tens of millions of American adults who did not have a government-issued photo ID, but learned from experience about the disenfranchising effect of voter confusion, which made our mission twice as urgent.”

This confusion about voter ID is not limited to at-risk or intimidated voters. Kathleen remembers,

“For at least the first six years of VoteRiders’ existence, I would talk at length with people who were electorally savvy, including reporters and democracy activists, only to find out at the end that they were still thinking and speaking about voter registration and not voter ID. It just didn’t penetrate that voter ID is in addition to, and different from, voter registration and that there are different rules for voter ID vs. voter registration ID.”

The past 10 years have seen a surge of new organizations focused on voter registration and other voting issues, which do not have the capacity to individually assist voters they encounter who lack ID or understanding of the real-world detailed application of their state’s voter ID law. VoteRiders’ strategic Direct Voter Contact partnerships ensure that voters don’t fall through the cracks of mass voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives.

People who have a current driver’s license or state ID in their state often don’t understand what’s the big deal about securing an ID – although some have a clue if they’ve attempted to obtain a REAL ID. They have no idea of the complications, expense and time it can take to get that ID if you don’t have ready access to all of your vital documents (including each and every name change as well as a birth certificate). The voters who struggle with voter ID are often our most vulnerable citizens. After all, lack of ID can create a negative spiral of life challenges including difficulty in securing a job and housing or accessing health care, social services, and banking. As Kathleen notes:

“Democracy-oriented nonprofits were VoteRiders’ first natural partners, but over the years we have increasingly worked closely with direct service organizations providing, for example, food pantries, shelter and housing programs, job training, and reintegration services for returning citizens. We need to meet voters where they are, where their basic needs are being met.”

Because VoteRiders has operated as a nationwide virtual platform from the beginning, the organization was able to swiftly pivot to virtual organizing when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. As the months wore on and the toll of the pandemic worsened, we saw an exponential increase in our volunteer ranks. It was a testament to how much democracy means to Americans that in the face of the crisis, many thousands of people (now 5,800+) stepped up to participate in our virtual events, write letters, send text messages, and answer voters’ questions that come in through our Helpline and website Chatbot. By the end of the 2020 election cycle, VoteRiders had directly assisted almost 1.5 million voters, and indirectly many millions more via the media, our celebrity ambassadors and partners’ outreach. VoteRiders’ ever-expanding outreach in the 2022 cycle is poised to exceed our goal of directly reaching 2 million voters with crucial ID education and assistance.

As VoteRiders celebrates 10 years of service to voters, we are drawing on all the lessons learned over the past decade. In 2022 and beyond, our mission remains to ensure that every voter is empowered with the information, ID, and confidence necessary to cast a ballot that counts.