One of the stock scenes in spy movies involves the steely-eyed secret police agent confronting a hapless citizen and demanding to see his or her "papers." The scene works because in most of the world, citizens are required to carry government-approved identification documents, and present them when requested by someone in authority. This isn't so in the United States, because our theoretical "right to privacy" supposedly prevents the Evil GovernmentTM from mandating a national identity document. This allows us to maintain a cherished freedom from demands from steely-eyed secret police agents, but proves problematic when those times arise when there's a legitimate need to prove definitively who we are (for voting, check-cashing, and other legal issues), how old we are (to buy alcohol or tobacco, or go to some movies), where we live (for tax or voting purposes), or whether or not we are actually citizens (to prevent illegal voting).
Most of us don't carry ... or even have a copy of ... our birth certificate, which theoretically proves exactly who we are and where we were born - and thus our citizenship status. Unfortunately, it's not a photo ID, which is what is usually required. And chances are that if there were a picture on your birth certificate, you don't look very much like it any more.
Here in the US, the humble driver's license is the most common form of identity document ... we are, after all, a nation built around a culture of cars and driving, and the acquisition of a driver's license is more or less a rite of passage for young people. But it's not a universally acceptable form of identification, because while it provides basic information like a photo, name, age, sex, and address, as well as other information like a fingerprint or one's status as an organ donor, it does not necessarily prove citizenship. Also, every state's driver's license is different in format, organization, and data presented, making it not very useful for identification in Wisconsin if you are from, say, the Republic of Texas. And finally, what if you can't or don't drive, because of age or disability - should you be required to spend the money (as much as $55, depending on the state, not to mention the cost of any driver training required) for such a document?
Some Americans have a passport, which is the gold standard of identification in that it proves both identity and citizenship; however, relatively few Americans travel, and the cost of a passport ($135 for a first-time adult application) is beyond the reach of many lower-income citizens.
And so I ask again: how do we prove who we are? This is no small issue at a time when there's a vast, manufactured hysteria over in-person voter fraud. And because we are a nation composed of 50 individual states, populated by citizens intent on preserving the sanctity of their privacy, there is no single nationally-recognized, readily obtainable form of identification, universally accepted for all legal actions.
I started thinking about this when my friend Lily directed me to an article pointing out that in Wisconsin, a military identification card issued by the Department of Defense is considered valid ID for voting, but a photo ID issued to a former service member by the Department of Veterans' Affairs is not. A little study revealed that there is a tremendous difference among the various states as to what documents are considered valid as proof of identity for voting. The list of acceptable IDs for Virginia is here; for purposes of comparison, here is the equivalent list for Texas*.
Privacy interests notwithstanding, we have a common interest in making sure we can identify ourselves when necessary. If I were you, I'd check - right now - to make sure that you have a form of ID acceptable not only to your local election officials, but also to the endlessly suspicious and steely-eyed poll watchers from the major political parties. You don't want to be deprived of your right to vote because you don't have an ID everyone will accept.
Let me just finish by saying that I have absolutely no problem with requiring a person to show a valid identification document in order to vote. But if it is to be a requirement, it is the responsibility of government at the appropriate levels to ensure that every eligible citizen is able to obtain the required ID conveniently, and either free or at a reasonable minimum cost.
So now, before I wish you a good day, how about some ID to show me you're entitled to it?
More thoughts tomorrow.
* Naturally, Texas would accept a license to carry a handgun as proof of ID for voting. Oy.