VoteRiders’ mission in the Tarheel state is getting a huge boost from a cadre of dedicated volunteers who are expanding the organization’s voter ID programs developed around Charlotte into other communities, including Raleigh-Durham and Hickory.
“Our model of going directly to places where marginalized individuals are most in need of IDs is having a real impact, thanks to our volunteers,” said Pamela Pearson, National Voter ID Clinics Director and Deputy General Counsel for VoteRiders. “Whether talking to people remotely or meeting them in person, we are finding ways to break through the logjam that keeps people from getting the IDs that they need now to get jobs, find permanent housing, and to vote in upcoming elections.”
VoteRiders’ community outreach in North Carolina began in cooperation with the League of Women Voters, with a table at a several local homeless shelters. Since then VoteRiders has forged relationships with organizations like soup kitchens, refuges for battered women, and other social service sites where people gather who may need to obtain or replace IDs.
Volunteer Marda Kornhaber is retired from her career as a human resources executive. She heard about VoteRiders from Pam, who was an acquaintance of hers, and chose to volunteer because of her desire that her time have an immediate impact in a cause she believes in: voting. Marda volunteers at a community shelter once a week, either in the afternoon or evening, to personally meet with people who need an ID. She speaks Spanish, which is an asset for assisting people like a woman from Puerto Rico who could not retrieve her identification papers from her previous residence without help.
“When people’s housing is insecure, they can more easily lose their ID or have them stolen,” says Marda. “Or their ID may be in a place that they cannot access – for example, a woman may be in hiding from an abusive partner and cannot return to her home. You can see the pain and distress that the lack of an ID causes in a person’s life as they are trying to get back on their feet. Someone may have a job interview tomorrow and need their ID in order to accept the offer that will get their life on track. People recently released from prison are especially vulnerable; their prison ID doesn’t work for them and we often have to go back years to find the documents to get a state ID.”
One of Marda’s most memorable cases involved working with two sisters with moderate disabilities who were in their 40’s. They had lived all their lives with their elderly parents. Shortly after their parents passed away, their house burned down. They lost their home, a lifetime of mementos, and all documentation for their family history and their identities. In addition to coping with their losses, they had to start from scratch to recreate the IDs that would prove who they were and allow them to move on with their lives. With VoteRiders’ help and Marda’s efforts, they were able to get these documents to start rebuilding their lives.
In addition to meeting people in person, volunteers can reach out to people who have requested assistance through VoteRiders’ Helpline or website. Pam manages a spreadsheet showing these requests. Based on their own schedules and availability, volunteers can check the list and select a person to call. An extensive training guide, along with in-person or virtual training, prepares volunteers with the knowledge they need. They also shadow or “buddy train” with experienced staff or volunteers to learn the ins and outs of the different government offices and services with which they must interface to procure IDs.
Kari Winters is retired from her career in retail management. Kari knew Marda and learned about VoteRiders from her. Rather than meeting people in person, Kari works with people virtually, talking with them over the phone, entering their information into her computer and following the trail of information to secure the appropriate ID for them. The process usually starts with ordering a certified copy of a birth certificate and/or replacement social security card and then scheduling the person for a DMV visit. Kari contributes about 4 – 6 hours a week to this work, at her convenience.
“This process may take a while,” notes Kari. “All offices are short-staffed and social security offices are closed, except for one office in Charlotte that is doing a pilot program seeing people via video conference. We really have to unravel a trail to get the appropriate proof and then to get the identity cards, one by one. Sometimes we have to go back to high school records to obtain proof of identification. Or even to a doctor’s office where the person may have gotten treatment. Or, a certified driver’s record from another state can be a proxy for ID.”
There is definitely a greater need for Marda’s and Kari’s help as a result of the pandemic, which caused many people to lose their jobs and their homes. One voter whose situation was particularly touching for Kari was a woman who had lost her job and was living with her sister; the woman was moving to Nebraska where she had secured a job offer. To make the trip and to accept the job, she needed her driver’s license and turned to VoteRiders. This lady also had two autistic adult children who did not have IDs. She brought these adult children with her, hoping VoteRiders could help them get state IDs. Kari assisted her in collecting the documents for them all that she should take to the DMV, such as proof of residency and identity. As a result, this woman and her children were able to start a new life – with IDs that will enable them to register to vote in Nebraska.
As of this writing, many people have to make an appointment in order to go to the DMV in North Carolina to obtain their IDs. The wait to get an appointment can be six weeks, or more. VoteRiders pays transportation costs to these offices, or uses a volunteer ride service to get people to these critically important appointments. Most DMV staff are supportive of making a phone call to a VoteRiders staff person or volunteer to clarify the person’s documents and help facilitate their transportation back home. VoterRiders also pays the fees associated with acquiring the various identification documents.
The important work which began for Pam in Western North Carolina is spreading eastward to the Raleigh-Durham metropolitan area, known as “The Triangle,” under the direction of volunteer Lola Omulodun. Lola has a full-time job as a community development specialist for rural and underserved populations across the state who lack access to health care. Interested in civic involvement, she responded to an e-mail requesting support for VoteRiders. Lola then participated in several events, including letter-writing campaigns, and decided to get more involved by expanding VoteRiders’ outreach in her home city.
“I wanted to make a difference in the way the country is going, especially helping individuals get more civically engaged,” explains Lola. “I’ve lived in North Carolina most of my life. My roots and connections are here, and there is such a need for VoteRiders’ help in getting people prepared to vote with the proper IDs. I decided to take on this role of re-creating the structure that has worked so well in the Charlotte area here in Raleigh.”
Lola is now reaching out to shelters, food pantries, food banks, and other sites where people can be contacted who might need a current ID.
“I’m doing the preliminary work to build relationships, looking for opportunities to partner with groups, and recruiting the volunteers who will actually be assisting in getting the IDs,” says Lola. “Everyone I’m talking with seems very open and interested, and they get excited about the chance to help people get an ID because they know how important this is.”
Currently working remotely in her job, Lola finds the time early in the morning, at noon, and in the evenings to do the outreach. With her son now grown, she has more flexibility in her schedule.
Each of these volunteers is finding gratification in helping people with life challenges and in contributing to building a strong democracy.
“This work is so fulfilling because I’m making an immediate impact on that person’s life. Everyone has been extremely kind and grateful. They are giving back to me as much as I am giving,” noted Kari.
Marda agrees. “It is very gratifying to see the immediate results of my contributions, which is rare in the non-profit world. My time is helping people on their road to a sustainable life and to being an involved citizen.”
While the North Carolina voter ID law is not in effect at this time, it is expected that a voter ID will be required by 2022. Now is the time to prepare these voters so they can cast their ballots.
“We talk about how important voting is with everyone we help,” said Pam. “Even if the national political scene may seem remote to them, what happens in local elections will affect the services they can access during this time of their lives and what the priorities for social services are going to be. They can see how these decisions affect them directly and how voting is important.”
Thank you to Marda, Kari, Lola, and all the other dedicated and creative volunteers who are the power behind VoteRiders’ accomplishments! You can join VoteRiders as a North Carolina volunteer here.
Guest Post by Joy Scott