Opinion

She’s 86. She couldn’t get a photo ID. Look at the voter fraud we’ve prevented

Reba Howser and her son, Ed, with the voter registration form she filled out last week in Asheville.
Reba Howser and her son, Ed, with the voter registration form she filled out last week in Asheville. Courtesy of the Howser family

Reba Bowser seems like the kind of person North Carolina Republicans might want on their side this November.

She’s 86 years old. She’s been a staunch Republican for years. She’s also been a faithful voter since the Eisenhower administration, missing only the most recent election after moving from New Hampshire to western North Carolina to be close to her son’s family.

“Both my parents, they voted in every election,” that son, Ed Bowser, says. “My grandparents, too. They took this seriously.”

So this month, with the North Carolina primary approaching, Reba wanted to make sure she could vote again. She needed to register, and she needed a valid photo ID, because beginning this year, North Carolina is requiring one to vote.

Last week, Ed helped her gather the papers the state said she needed for that ID. They decided to make an event of the process – a celebration of democracy. They went out to lunch. They filled out her voter registration form. They took a happy photo.

On Monday, they went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in west Asheville. There, they laid out all of Reba’s paperwork for a DMV official – her birth records from Pennsylvania, her Social Security card, the N.H. driver’s license she let expire because she no longer wanted to drive.

But there was a problem. When Reba got married in 1950, she had her name legally changed. Like millions upon millions of women, she swapped out her middle name for her maiden name.

That name – Reba Miller Bowser – didn’t match the name on her birth record. A DMV computer flagged the discrepancy, Ed says. The photo ID application was rejected.

Ed was surprised. And Reba? “It wasn’t obvious to my mom what was happening,” he says.

There’s good reason for Reba’s confusion. Her name had never been an issue before this week. Not when she applied for driver’s licenses in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Not when she’s flown on airplanes and traveled to other countries.

State DMV commissioner Kelly Thomas tells me that Asheville’s DMV office messed up, and that Reba should have been given a chance to sign a name-change affidavit. That’s a little-known option to the public, and apparently to at least one DMV worker.

But Reba is far from the only person who’s had difficulty with documents or the fog of bureaucracy. Others have difficulty even getting to a DMV office because of transportation or issues getting time off from work. It’s exactly the kind of trouble voter ID opponents and research predicted when the law was passed in 2013.

Republicans did water down the law last year in the face of criticism and a court challenge (a federal judge is expected to issue a ruling soon.) The revision allowed voters like Reba to declare an “impediment” and cast a provisional ballot without a photo. But those declarations would still have to be checked out, and the same middle name issue that snagged Reba might cause provisional votes not to be counted.

All of which might cause some voters to not bother. That’s kind of the point. Republicans passed voter ID to make voting harder, not easier, and they peddled the fiction that the hassle was worth it to stop voter fraud. Except the kind of fraud that voter ID would stop is practically non-existent.

It’s an issue that the Bowsers haven’t followed much, at least until it snagged Reba. But now, Ed says: “I’m thinking how this affected an 86-year-old woman with limited transportation and resources. You think about extending that to poor communities and minority communities.”

That’s what Republicans were thinking, too, when they crafted the voter ID law. They knew the hassle they created would mostly affect the people who vote for their opponents.

But it’s also working on Reba Bowser, who told Ed’s wife, Amy, this week that they seem to treat old people differently here in North Carolina.

“Maybe,” Reba said, “I’m just not going to vote.”

Peter: @saintorange; pstonge@charlotteobserver.com

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