'I Always Feel Like I Helped Somebody' Says VoteRiders Volunteer
VoteRiders Florida Super Volunteer Iris Johnston tells VoteRiders’ Digital Communications Coordinator about her inspiration for becoming a VoteRiders volunteer, her work assisting voters at the DMV, and the meaningful impact VoteRiders is having on American lives and our democracy — January 23, 2024.
Tell me about yourself. Aside from volunteering with VoteRiders, what do you do with your time?
I’m 66 years old and I live in Florida’s St. Petersburg area. I do a lot of volunteer work including with the local women’s health center and at the polls during election season. I love to read and spend time at the beach. I’ve got grown kids; they’re very important to me. I’m retired from human services where I worked all my career. I was a counselor and then I moved into grant writing.
How did you find out about VoteRiders? Why did you decide to become a VoteRiders volunteer?
It was probably right before COVID and the last presidential election in 2020. I was thinking, “I need to get involved in something. I want to be more active.” People were being restricted from voting because they couldn’t get to the polls, they couldn’t vote by mail, and they didn’t have an ID (Florida is a voter ID state). It was a concern for me. So I Googled what kind of volunteer work I could do in my area that helps with voter access and I found VoteRiders, which I didn’t know existed.
When COVID hit, the government wasn’t helping people get IDs. When the COVID quarantine lifted I started volunteering with VoteRiders for a couple of afternoons a month.
What do you do as a VoteRiders volunteer?
I meet people at the DMV and walk them through the process of getting their ID.
Other local volunteers work with the client — and perhaps their case worker if they have a case worker — and help them get all of their documents, whether that’s a birth certificate, a replacement Social Security card, proof of address, or something like that. I do something different. First I receive a list of the people I’m going to be meeting at the DMV — because they need a replacement ID or whatever it is. Then I call those people and introduce myself. I tell them I’m going to help them at the DMV and ask them if they’re able to keep that appointment. Sometimes they’ll tell me that they can’t for whatever reason, so I go through my list to see how many appointments I can actually confirm.
On the day of the appointment, I set up an Uber ride to pick the client up from wherever they are and take them to the DMV. I tell them to look for the woman with a clipboard in her hand so we’re able to identify each other. Once they get there I get them signed in, we wait for our number, and then I work with them and the DMV employee to make sure they understand what they need to do to get their ID. If there’s a charge — for a replacement or a new ID — VoteRiders will pay for it as long as it’s not a fine or something like that.
When it all works out, when they’re able to get their ID, it’s really nice. Sometimes it doesn’t work out because they don’t have the required paperwork so they have to try again. But when it does, it really is a good thing.
Clients will also quite often either register to vote or update their voter registration because the DMV employee asks if they want to do that as they’re getting an ID. When everything is finished, I set up an Uber ride to take them home. After that I record what happened — the successes or if there was a problem that the caseworker needs to follow up about.
People are so appreciative. Volunteering with VoteRiders is a very worthwhile thing to do. Navigating the system can be very daunting for anybody, but especially for somebody who doesn’t have their birth certificate but needs a photo ID to vote, rent an apartment, or get a job. It can be really daunting to get an ID when you don’t have a birth certificate or another important document.
I worked with a young woman recently and she was so excited after she got her ID. She came over to me, showed me her new ID, gave me a hug, and said, ‘Thank you so much for helping me.’ Everything just fell into place. She had what she needed. She also told me that she updated her voter registration and I was like, ‘Good for you! Vote!’
I’ve never left a volunteer shift thinking, ‘Well that was a waste of time.’ I always feel like I helped somebody. Even if they didn’t get exactly what they came in for, we got closer to figuring out exactly what they had to have.
And I have to say, I know there’s kind of a stereotype that going to the DMV is going to be a hassle and the people there are not going to be helpful, but I have never had that experience in the two or three years that I’ve been doing this work — at least at the Pinellas County DMV office. We’ve had phenomenal DMV workers who truly help the person get what they need to be successful. They’ll explain something and then they’ll explain it again. They’re very patient, which I appreciate very much.
What is your favorite part about being a VoteRiders volunteer?
My favorite part is just knowing the importance of helping somebody vote. We have the fundamental freedom to vote in this country and if somebody wants to exercise that privilege but can’t because they don’t have an ID, that just doesn’t sit well. We should all be working to help people vote. We should not put up hindrances that keep them from being able to exercise that right.
I also enjoy interacting with all the different people I’ve met, it’s just fun. I’ve met a lot of people and it’s interesting to see how an ID can make someone’s life a lot easier.
What are the more challenging aspects of your volunteer work with VoteRiders?
The most challenging part is when a person comes to the DMV appointment and they don’t have everything that they need. I’ve learned a lot by trial and error through my time as a VoteRiders volunteer, but it can be hard to navigate the system. If you’re from out of state and you need your birth certificate, how do you get that? It can be hard. There are other volunteers who handle that side of the work. I have a huge amount of respect for them. I think I have the easy part, talking to clients and just helping them by actually being there with them in person. Trying to navigate the system; I got a lot of respect for the volunteers who do that. I have strong interpersonal skills that help me in my volunteer role.
Also, a lot of our clients are unhoused and that can make it extremely hard to get an ID because they need proof of residence. However, if they’re residing in a shelter, they can use that address on their ID. So that’s helpful.
Are there any particular moments that have stood out during your volunteer experience?
There was one gentleman who was trying to get a replacement ID for his commercial driver’s license — he was waiting to start a new job. The state law had just changed and apparently, he didn’t know it and his case worker didn’t know it either. He didn’t have one piece of information that he needed so he couldn’t get his ID that day. But then another VoteRiders volunteer sat down with him and helped him organize all of his paperwork into files and folders and they were able to track down what he needed. He scheduled another DMV appointment and he was finally able to get his replacement commercial driver’s license. He told me, ‘I just have to tell you that lady that I worked with, she helped me so much. I’m going to keep things much more organized now.’ I just thought that was so cool. I can see her sitting down with him and saying, ‘Let’s get these papers organized. Let’s see how we can make things easier for you.’
When someone is successful at getting their ID, they get so excited. They’ll come up to me and show me their ID and ask me if I think the picture is good — something like that. There are a lot of high-fives. And I’m like, ‘You’re welcome, but thank VoteRiders! I’m just a tiny piece of it.’
Even if someone isn’t successful at getting their ID, even if they’re going to have to come back to the DMV, they’re still very appreciative that VoteRiders has taken an interest in them and is willing to try to help them figure out what they need to do to get that ID so they can vote, so they can work, whatever it may be.
People also appreciate getting a free Uber ride to and from the DMV. That is just phenomenal — a huge success of the Voter ID Assistance program. I think 90% of the people I’ve worked with would not be able to get an ID if they couldn’t get a ride to and from the DMV. Not too many people can get there on their own, especially if they’re trying to get their driver’s license or a replacement driver’s license.
The volunteer group we have here is a very good group. We’re all very committed to the work.
Do you have any advice for a future VoteRiders volunteer or is there anything you might say to someone who is considering volunteering with VoteRiders?
I would tell them, ‘Do it. Absolutely. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing — I don’t quite know what I’m doing — do it, step out of your comfort zone, get involved. I was nervous the first time and it helped so much that I got on-the-spot training. A new volunteer is not just going to be set out there to flounder. There is a lot of support.’
It’s such a worthwhile program. It’s very rewarding and I enjoy it a lot.