EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the October 2012 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.
With issues such as Medicare, Social Security and taxes taking center stage this election season, older voters are eager to cast their ballots. But seniors who want their vote to count should take a close look at state voting laws before heading to the polls.
In a flurry of legislative activity, states have enacted new laws that require voters to show specific types of identification at the polls, shorten early voting periods and change procedures for casting absentee ballots. A dozen states, for example, passed new voter ID laws since the start of last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Proponents say the new laws can help prevent election fraud, while critics say they'll simply disenfranchise many voters. In any case, the changes may disproportionately affect seniors. About 18% of U.S. citizens 65 and older lack a current, government-issued photo ID, versus 11% of the population overall, according to New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.
While voter identification is not a new concept, the new laws institute stricter requirements. With a number of states now requiring a current, government-issued photo ID, a Social Security or Medicare card won't pass muster. In some states, voters lacking proper ID will be given "provisional" ballots that will only be counted if they show election officials acceptable ID within a few days of the election.
States that now have strict voter ID requirements include Georgia, Indiana and Tennessee. "Where new voter ID requirements are in place, we have serious concerns on the impact for senior voters," says Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel in the Brennan Center's Democracy Program.
In some cases, even seniors who have a valid, in-state driver's license can run afoul of new voter ID laws. In Tennessee, people age 60 and older are allowed to have a non-photo driver's license. But under the state's new voter ID law, this non-photo license won't be accepted at the polls. Mary Mancini of Tennessee Citizen Action, a nonpartisan organization that campaigned against the law, notes that her 82-year-old mother-in-law may not vote because she "doesn't have the photo on her driver's license and is not very mobile at this point, and she's frustrated."
Shifting Rules for Older Voters
Some states have made some concessions for older voters. Under a Kansas voter ID law enacted last year, people 65 and older can show expired photo ID at the polls. And under Pennsylvania's new voter ID law, which was challenged in court, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities can provide residents with IDs that will be accepted at the polls. But critics say these facilities often lack the experience or procedures for issuing identification. (A Pennsylvania judge in early October blocked enforcement of a photo ID requirement for voters going to the polls in November.)
Seniors who typically vote early to avoid long lines on Election Day may find they have a narrower time frame to get to the polls. West Virginia, for example, has reduced the early voting period to about ten days, down from 17 previously. Voters casting absentee ballots in states such as Kansas and Pennsylvania must also comply with new procedures, typically providing a driver's license number or other identification.
With some state voting laws facing legal challenges, rules may change again before Election Day. "I track this stuff for a living, and I'm having trouble keeping up," says Jennie Bowser, senior fellow at the National Conference on State Legislatures.
Several Web sites provide state-specific guidance on obtaining appropriate ID. CanIVote.org, maintained by the National Association of Secretaries of State, provides direct links to state government information on ID requirements and absentee and early voting procedures. The League of Women Voters’ Vote411.org offers state-by-state voting procedures and details on provisions for voters with disabilities.
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