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This series explores the various voting barriers for Americans. Part 1. Read more from this series.
Kat Calvin is a superhero. She can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound or make herself invisible (yet!) but as founder and executive director of Spread the Vote, she is helping to make it possible for 21 million Americans to participate in our democracy.
Spread the Vote’s mission is simple yet profound: Help the most vulnerable Americans get a photo ID so that they can vote.
I recently talked to Calvin about her work to ensure that millions of Americans are not left out of the voting process and her advice for donors who want to strengthen our democracy now and in the long term.
I watched your video explaining the origin of Spread the Vote, but describe the organization in your own words.
Unlike other countries that issue national IDs, in the U.S., you have to complete paperwork, go to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), and pay money to get an ID. This creates a big barrier for and disenfranchises millions of folks.
I thought, if we can make sure folks have the photo IDs they need, they’ll be able to vote. So, I started Spread the Vote.
I have to admit that when I heard that states were requiring photo IDs to vote, it made sense to me. I have to show my license or ID in order to conduct many business activities.
Unfortunately, there are 21 million eligible voters in the U.S. who don’t have IDs. These folks are our clients. They are often experiencing homelessness or are incarcerated or returning citizens. We also work with folks in storm-prone areas who have lost everything. Some of our clients are domestic violence survivors. We work with the elderly and the young; many of our clients haven’t had IDs for decades.
We’ve also learned that not having a photo ID has a profound effect on nearly every aspect of your life. There are so many things that you cannot do without an ID. You cannot rent an apartment or get a job. You can’t get medical care. In some cases, you can’t get tested for COVID-19. I was very surprised to learn that some food banks and homeless shelters require IDs.
What does Spread the Vote do?
Spread the Votes works in 12 states that require voters to have a photo ID to vote. We train our staff and volunteers and go client by client to help each one get what they need.
First, we help our clients secure their paperwork, which includes tracking down birth certificates, proof of residency, and information about name changes. If we have to order new records, we do that and we pay for the paperwork. The average cost to get an ID is $40, which is a lot of money for many people. We also help our clients get to and from the DMV. When I started Spread the Vote, I was surprised to learn that more than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest DMV. Finally, we often advocate for our clients at the DMV to make sure that their paperwork is not rejected.
How has your work been affected by COVID-19?
We’ve had to transition to a virtual format and that has been very challenging -- ID numbers are drastically down. We won’t be on the ground for the rest of the year and many of our 900 volunteers are retirees who are in the high-risk category for contracting the disease. In addition, people who experience homelessness, including some of our clients, are more at risk for respiratory diseases. It’s a perfect storm.
We have had some success with getting people IDs virtually because we've been lucky to build relationships with case workers and social workers and prison and jail systems -- like the New Orleans public defenders -- that are in contact with their clients. By working through them, we have some shelters setting up a laptop so our volunteers can Zoom with our clients. Also, even though DMVs are now open, in some states, we can’t get appointments for our clients until after the election.
The good news is that we are still able to do a lot of voter education work. Seventy-seven percent of our clients are first-time voters so voter education is a big priority for us. This fall, we will host virtual small group voter education through our community partners. This will include walking our clients through our (non-jargon filled!) voter guides, making a voting plan, and helping with transportation. We're also doing voter education and assistance for incarcerated citizens through our vote by mail in jail program and online virtual education courses.
Is there anything else you want to share about your work?
Leading Spread the Vote has made me keenly aware of how our society is segregated by class. Most of us are not used to being in rooms with people who are homeless or facing challenges many of us aren’t accustomed to. Thus, we don’t realize that there are huge groups of people who can’t participate in our civic or economic life. But, for a strong democracy, we need everyone’s voice.
Donors can help Spread the Vote by giving money, time, and talent:
- Build awareness: Listen and share Vote! The podcast which features Andrea Hailey, CEO of Vote.org, and Calvin.
- Get involved:
- Host your own virtual ballot party to help new voters follow the instructions to complete their absentee ballots online.
- Take Action:
- Stand in line at polling places for people who can’t stand in line for hours for themselves.
- Advocate for National IDs for all Americans.