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EPSTEIN: Gaining access with identification

Imagine not having a bank account. Imagine all your money is hidden in a sock drawer. Imagine arriving home one day to find the door ajar. You've been robbed! You run to the sock drawer, but your savings are gone.

An estimated 22 million U.S. households — 22 percent of minority households, according to a Federal Reserve Board survey — did not have bank accounts in 2001. Some people claimed they didn't like high bank fees and some didn't trust banks. Still more people cannot open an account because they lack proper identification.

The USA PATRIOT Act, passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, now requires banks to verify the identities of new account holders. Many banks now insist that prospective account holders provide a government-issued ID such as a driver's license as part of heir application. An informal survey of Washington, D.C. area banks conducted by Project 21 found more than 83 percent of those polled have a photo ID requirement. These requirements put an estimated 21 million American adults without proper ID at a financial disadvantage. It also puts them at a disadvantage if they want to vote.

More than 20 states now require voters to provide identification — often a photo ID - before allowing them to vote. Additional states will likely follow, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Indiana's voter ID law last April. Critics contend that voter ID laws are like Jim Crow-era poll taxes, claiming they disfranchise the poor, elderly and minorities who may lack government-issued IDs or the means to obtain them. These critics overlook the real problem of election fraud. As chronicled by John Fund in his book "Stealing Elections:"

*A May, 2004 report by Missouri state auditor (now U.S. senator) Claire McCaskill found ten percent of St. Louis voters in the previous month's primary election were "questionable" - including 4,405 dead people, 1,453 registered at vacant lots and 15,963 with dual registrations elsewhere in Missouri and Illinois.

*A $3 "bounty" for obtaining voter registrations in the 2002 Senate election in South Dakota resulted in unscrupulous workers filing thousands of applications that included the recently deceased, children and names copied out of phone books. Several arrests were made on forgery charges.

*An independent survey of voters, after a contentious 2002 county supervisor election in Kern County, California, found 76 people who admitted in writing they were not U.S. citizens and 69 who admitted over the phone they voted twice. Additionally, 272 admitted to not living at the proper address. The election was decided by a 266-vote margin.

Election integrity suffers without proper safeguards. Fraud undermines faith in the process and usurps the rights of honest voters. A photo ID requirement at polling places is a common-sense approach already successfully implemented in places such as Mexico. Indiana offers free photo IDs so the poor are not disfranchised, and Georgia has a mobile office to increase access. Still, activists and politicians rail against identification requirements.

Fighting voter ID laws rather than focusing on helping people comply with them champions a disconnected status, leading to further disfranchisement. Not only might people not be able to vote, but they also cannot protect and grow their savings, travel by bus, train or air, wire money or visit government buildings. Put that in perspective. Denying that people need ID in our modern society sounds more criminal than virtuous. Theirs is a segregation without perpetrator or benefactor, but it is segregation nonetheless. Voter ID laws don't change that.

After spending lots of money on lawyers, lobbyists and grassroots campaigns to keep people from needing ID, might it be wiser to instead spend perhaps a fraction of that money on a non-profit group that is a resource to help those without ID? Instead of perpetuating a flawed system that potentially disfranchises all voters, why not provide a public service. Don't know what to bring or where to get an ID? If it's not on the Web, someone can research it. Having trouble getting a birth certificate? Find out where to call. Need cab fare or money to purchase an ID? Fill out an application and get reimbursed.

The bottom line is that someone without proper identification is out of step. And those who want to keep them there are out of line.

Reece Epstein is a research associate for the Project 21 Black Leadership Network.

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