Coronavirus, 2020 Election and the New ID Laws Are Brewing a Perfect Storm. Are We Prepared?

Published 3/16/20 at Newsweek

Our nation’s campaign season isn’t just kicking off. It’s mid-swing.

And as we get closer to an incredibly consequential election day—one ultimately affecting local offices, state legislatures, governorships, Congress and the Senate, and the office of the president—we must recognize and address the storm on the horizon.

Many Americans are currently unequipped with what they need to vote in states with voter ID laws, unprepared or confused by the nationwide “REAL ID” switchover on October 1 that will affect their ability to travel and fly, and facing uncertainty about how the spread of the novel coronavirus may upset the primary process and election day.

Let’s start with what we know for certain: many, many Americans won’t make themselves heard in the remaining caucuses and primaries, let alone the presidential election, without a drastic intervention.

Roughly 40 million voting-age citizens—the combined voting-eligible populations of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—don’t have a driver’s license. Citizens disproportionately impacted, and oftentimes disenfranchised, by voter ID laws are voters of color, students (some states don’t accept student IDs), people with disabilities, low-income individuals, and older Americans. Collectively, this ID-less population accounts for 11 percent of voters. An additional 9 percent—led astray by ill-trained poll workers or non-existent state education campaigns—are refused a ballot or stay home because they simply don’t know what’s needed to vote. All told, up to one fourth of the country’s electorate may lose the opportunity to elect local, state, and national leaders.

Some might ask, ok, why not just get an ID? Well, here’s where everything gets even more confusing. Beginning October 1, 2020, everyone who flies—nearly 90 percent of the U.S. population—must present a newly required REAL ID license, or some other federally-issued identification like a passport, before boarding a commercial aircraft. This new, nationwide deadline goes into effect about a month before election day.

As of last fall per the U.S. Travel Association, 72 percent of Americans don’t have a REAL ID or are unsure if they have one and 39 percent lack the permitted alternatives. To obtain a new REAL ID, you must visit the DMV in-person with original or certified copies of certain government documents showing name, date of birth, and social security number, in addition to documents proving your residence. Americans who already have a driver’s license generally renew them online or by mail without submitting documentation and must scramble to gather hard-to-find paperwork.

Securing identification, whether to vote or otherwise, shouldn’t be a byzantine undertaking. Nor should it be this confusing to understand what you need in your wallet to vote or travel. But for many, it is. My colleagues and I have heard countless stories from people about the complications they encounter, such as traveling hundreds of miles to acquire birth certificates and making repeat trips to agencies to ensure names match on all documents (a complication disproportionately impacting married women who have changed their name).

Now add COVID-19, or coronavirus, into this confusion. Voters and travelers will be understandably concerned about their having to appear in person at the increasingly crowded DMV and Social Security Administration offices.

Alone, the voting process and the effect of state voter ID rules could be argued as arcane, patchwork, and confusing. Add REAL ID and coronavirus into the mix, and we have a recipe for chaos.

Our work, corroborated by reputable research, shows the disenfranchising impact on millions of citizens who don’t know what IDs will enable them to vote in their home state (in fact, REAL ID isn’t specifically required by states with voter ID rules, but it is accepted by every last one of them). These voters do not readily have documents needed for a traditional or REAL ID, nor do they know how to get them. Many can’t afford the time and money to obtain a REAL ID before the October 1 deadline nor a voter ID before November 3rd.

If this seems worrisome to you, just think how difficult it is for families with limited resources and time.

For citizens who need help—by way of understanding what is required, a ride to the DMV, funds for necessary documentation, and assistance in navigating the process—we are leading a coalition of voter groups to help as many people as possible.

We, and so many others who care about a truly representative form of government, can’t tip-toe around what’s on the horizon. We’re facing a unique, troubling set of circumstances right now. But together, we have the ability to navigate the months ahead.


Kathleen Unger is the founder of VoteRiders, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that informs and helps citizens to secure their voter ID and supports voter ID education at the local level.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.​​​​​