Last week, workers at the 85-bed nursing home on Leighton Avenue finished helping residents with their absentee ballot applications. It’s a lengthy process, staff say, because every voter has to produce documentation to prove his or her identity.
“We have residents who have no Social Security card, and we have residents who have no birth certificate,” said Clayton Cox, an administrator at Beckwood. “Eventually we find something — but very few of them have photo ID.”
Cox said he’ll be “very interested” to see what happens in 2014, when Alabama’s voter ID laws get even tighter. Right now, it’s not entirely clear how the state’s thousands of nursing home residents — most of them non-drivers — would get a photo ID for the next election season, or if they would really even need it.
When voters go to the polls Nov. 6, they have a wide range of options for proving they are who they say they are. Gun permits, Social Security cards and other documents are acceptable as ID at the polls this year.
But beginning with the 2014 elections, voters will have to show a photographic ID — either a driver’s license or some other government-issued picture ID, including a voter-only ID that is mandated by law, but has yet to be designed.
The photo ID requirement is part of a law passed by the Alabama Legislature in 2011 — the state’s first Republican-controlled Legislature in 136 years. Proponents of the bill said it was long overdue, and that voting should be at least as secure as other transactions, such as cashing a check or renting a movie.
Opponents said the measure was a Republican attempt to suppress the vote among largely Democratic voting groups.
In-person voter fraud is, by most accounts, quite rare. Aside from a 2002 case in which a Dadeville woman impersonated her sister at the polls, The Star has found no evidence of in-person fraud in Alabama in recent years. There have also been a handful of prosecutions for absentee ballot fraud and vote-buying since the late 1990s.
As much as 11 percent of the population may be without photo ID, according a study by the Brennan Center at New York University. Among the people most likely to lack photo ID, the study suggested, were elderly people with low incomes, particularly in minority communities.
The largest concentrations of people without photo ID may be in the state’s nursing homes.
“By the time people come to live in nursing homes, they’ve usually been non-drivers for several years,” said John Matson, a spokesman for the Alabama Nursing Home Association.
Matson said there are about 24,500 nursing home residents in Alabama, and few of them have a driver’s license or any other form of photo ID. Most use Medicaid or Social Security cards as identification when they vote now, he said.
One 95-year-old Beckwood resident, who asked that her name not be used, said she didn’t know whether she had photo ID. She said relatives took care of those matters for her.
How the law would affect her or other nursing home residents in 2014 is, at this point, something of a question mark.
After the voter ID law was passed, House sponsor Rep. Kerry Rich, R-Albertville, posted a message on his website stating that “if you vote absentee and are a sick and shut in, unable to physically go to the polls you will be able to vote the same as you do now, which requires your ballot to be notarized or witnessed by two people.”
None of that is mentioned explicitly in the law itself, though some other states’ voter ID laws do provide explicit exemptions for nursing home residents. However, the Alabama law does state that people who are covered by federal laws governing access to the polls by elderly and disabled voters would not have to produce ID. Attempts to reach Rich for further comment on the matter Friday were not successful.
Officials of the Secretary of State’s office declined comment on how the law would be implemented or how it would affect nursing home residents. They cited the need to keep the office’s messages clear as the 2012 election approaches.
“We do not want any voter to mistakenly believe that photo ID is required for the Nov. 6 election,” said Emily Thompson, deputy secretary of state, in an email to The Star.
Some advocacy groups are also keeping quiet about photo ID in recent weeks, citing a desire not to scare people away from the polls on Nov. 6.
“We don’t want to talk it up,” said Jim Carnes, spokesman for the Montgomery-based anti-poverty group Alabama Arise. He said the group’s board planned to discuss the 2014 voter ID requirement, but wouldn’t comment on the law before the 2012 election because the discussion could confuse voters.
In late summer, officials of the Secretary of State’s office told The Star that the process of designing a voter-only ID, as mandated by the voter ID law, have not yet begun.
It won’t be just nursing home residents who could need that voter-only ID in 2014. While non-driving adults are relatively rare in rural and small-town communities, it’s not too hard to find them in the state’s larger cities.
Gloria Flowers, 66, has lived in Montgomery her whole life. She said she’s never driven a car.
“I’m a bus and cab person,” she said. “And I walk.”
Flowers got a non-driver photo ID a few years ago, largely because cashing checks without one was a hassle.
Anthony Brown, 45, works in the lunchroom at a Montgomery middle school and takes the bus home. Like Flowers, he’s never had a license. And like Flowers, he knuckled down recently and got a non-driver ID. He said it’s increasingly something you need just to do everyday business.
Even so, Brown didn’t like the idea of a photo ID requirement at the polls.
“What if you forget it? What if somebody steals it?” he said.
He said the $23 cost of the ID was “really high” for working people in hard times.
The voter ID does allow poll workers to vouch for someone who shows up without an ID. And the as-yet-undesigned voter-only ID is supposed to be free, according to state law — though critics of the law claim some voters will see a hidden cost —$15 to $30 to acquire birth certificates and marriage licenses needed to get that ID.
Clayton Cox, of Beckwood Manor, said it’s not so uncommon for nursing home residents to lack that documentation, or to simply not know where it is.
He said that no matter how the law plays out, his staff will find a way to preserve residents’ right to vote.
“Otherwise, you could have a whole class of people who lose their rights,” he said.
State capital & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.