‘My New ID is Like My Freedom Papers’ Says Ohio Returning Citizen

After thirty-two and a half years in prison, Willie Florence needed an Ohio state ID so he could apply for a job, secure housing, and begin to rebuild his life again at the age of fifty-one. And with Ohio recently enacting one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws, he also needed an ID to cast a ballot and make his voice heard on issues he cares about. 

But without a Social Security card or documentation to prove his identity, Willie kept hitting roadblock after roadblock. 

Upon release, Willie was sent to reside at a halfway house in Dayton, Ohio. A case manager through Volunteers of America’s Re-Entry Division Program tried everything in their power to secure the government-issued identification Willie needed to get back on his feet, but with no knowledge of a Social Security number attached to his name, this was proving impossible. 

VoteRiders helps returning citizen secure Ohio ID
Willie Florence

Thankfully, Willie’s case manager learned about VoteRiders and connected him to Pam Pearson, VoteRiders’ National Voter ID Assistance Director. Upon reviewing Ohio’s voting rights for formerly incarcerated citizens, Pam informed Willie of his voting eligibility and explained that he could register to vote once he received his identification. This was especially encouraging news as Willie had learned the importance of voting at a very young age from his grandmother, who brought him along with her while she went door-to-door to register people to vote. 

Pam assured Willie that although she couldn’t assist him in person — due to VoteRiders not yet having staff on the ground in Ohio (which we do now!) — she knew exactly what it would take to work with him remotely and help him secure the ID he needed to get back on his feet. 

First Pam contacted Willie’s local Social Security office and helped him confirm his correct Social Security number, which had been unknown to both Willie, his case manager, and his probation officer. After his number was confirmed, the next step was securing proof of identity so he could apply for a Social Security card. Willie’s demographic record was on file at a local medical clinic where he previously received care. Pam ordered an Uber to take Willie to the clinic so he could pick up that important piece of documentation.

After the biggest hurdle to obtaining a state identification was finally overcome, the bureaucratic nightmare Willie was facing for months began to unravel. 

Next, Pam ordered a second Uber to take Willie from the medical clinic to the Social Security office — where he’d been several times already, with no success. Here he completed an application for a replacement Social Security card. This time, it worked! He was told he’d receive his official card in approximately two weeks and was given documentation he could provide to prove it was on the way. 

As he already had his birth certificate, Willie had everything he needed (including two pieces of mail to prove his residency) to finally secure an Ohio state identification card. 

Pam arranged a third Uber to take Willie from the Social Security office to his local Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) where he presented his various identifying documents (Social Security card, demographic record, and birth certificate) for processing, and registering to vote. Within a few minutes later, Willie had officially reached the end of his harrowing journey to secure identification – he was finally handed his Ohio state ID

“Big shoutout to Pam, she changed my life” Willie exclaimed. “I’m just ecstatic, I can’t even explain how I feel in words. It’s amazing that Pam — who is all the way in North Carolina — single-handedly got done in four days worth of time what other people couldn’t get done in three months.”

The biggest gift Willie’s new Ohio ID has given him is the ability to trade in his prison identification. 

“My new ID is kind of like my freedom papers,” he said. “After being locked up for thirty-two and a half years, having an ID that’s still a representation of that situation kept me in a certain place. But to be able to look at my ID now — I have the same ID as a person who has never even been to prison. Now if I go somewhere and I have to present my identification, I’m not automatically judged for being someone who has made mistakes. It gives me the confidence to know that I’m a citizen again. I’m a free citizen.“ 

With his new Ohio state identification, Willie can now start a new chapter in his life, one that begins with a job, safe and stable shelter, and the ability to use his voice to shape the political process around him. Change is on the horizon for Willie, and he believes change begins with voting.

“If you want to change, if you believe that there is the ability to change, you have to move, you have to vote, you have to get out,” he explained. ”I want to vote in every election. I don’t care if they’re just voting on who’s going to be the county librarian, I’m voting.“ 

Willie’s story is a reminder that organizations like VoteRiders exist to offer hope to those who need help finding the light at the end of the tunnel. At VoteRiders, we refuse to let any eligible voter feel intimidated or defeated by confusing voter ID laws and other bureaucratic barriers that keep people from securing the identification they need to survive. 

“VoteRiders’ services really worked for me,” Willie said. “It did wonders. It was a home run, a touchdown, a knockout, all at one time.”