Getting information can be tough, even in a world of instantaneous, relentless, personalized information. That may seem counterintuitive, but Erin McKee, a student in the Wake Forest University School of Law, believes otherwise.
She wants to help.
In 2016, North Carolina — following the lead of many states — will implement new voter laws, including a requirement to present a valid ID at the polls.
Sounds simple enough, though McKee (’15) knows better.
“Although the majority of Americans have some kind of government-issued photo ID, as many as 11 (percent) do not,” she wrote in a blog post for the American Society on Aging. “Among those who lack this kind of ID, many are over age 65. In fact, (one) in (five) citizens over age 65 are estimated to be without a valid government-issued ID.”
Many older people don’t drive, and many either don’t have or can’t find a birth certificate, said McKee, who understands the inherent challenges as we grow older.
“It was hard enough to get all those things together when you were young and had your parents helping you out.,” says McKee, who earned an MFA from Hollins University. “A lot of states, especially in rural areas of the deep South, didn’t even provide birth certificates before 1950.”
“The Internet is so personalized; if you don’t want to hear about the voter ID laws, then you won’t.”
People should, of course, try to learn about new laws and regulations, rules that directly — or even indirectly — affect their lives.
McKee wants to make sure of it. She has helped to create a website, voteridhelp.org, which she’ll promote Wednesday, March 25, as part of “A Helping Hand in the Voting Booth: Helping Older Adults Navigate New Voter ID Laws” during the 2015 Aging in America Conference in Chicago.
McKee and her husband, Phillip Bost, began work on the website in January. It launched March 1, 2015.
McKee, who grew up in Morganton, N.C., hopes to reach a large and diverse audience, made up of people who will, in turn, disseminate the information in their respective communities.
“I think our end-user is not necessarily the older voters themselves,” she said. “I think our task is getting an audience with people in the community who work with older individuals, educating them that this is an issue affecting your clients, your community.
“It would be great if these folks looked at the laws in their state and were on the lookout for clients and contacts that did not have what they need to vote and could use the site as a resource for how to proceed.
“I hope I can touch base with people in a lot of aging-related fields and let them know about the program, to touch base with policy and advocacy organizations and see what strategies they’ve used to educate people.”
The voting project began as McKee, who earned her bachelor’s degree from Mars Hill University, worked in the Elder Law Clinic with Professor Kate Mewhinney. Since then McKee has done programs with AARP NC, the N.C. Voter Education Project, Democracy NC and the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad.
“I gave a short talk about curbside assistance for older and disabled voters on Election Day, which included the mention of the voter ID law set to go into effect in North Carolina in 2016. I quickly became aware that voter ID laws have a disproportionate impact on older voters and wondered about the laws already in place in other states.”
Professor Mewhinney says she is so proud of students like McKee, “who learn about harsh laws and react with compassion and care towards those affected. She has harnessed technology and the internet so that communities can better assist low-income elders to vote.”
Mewhinney adds, “Our clients face the challenges of aging with extremely limited resources. It troubles me to see laws enacted that deprive the most vulnerable of these elders of the right to vote, simply because they lack government IDs. Instead of silencing their voices, we should be reaching out to help and empower them.”
McKee calls Mewhinney “an incredible mentor to me.”
“Without my experience in the Elder Law Clinic I would have never had the confidence to take on a project like this. From day one, Professor Mewhinney encouraged me to research topics that interested me, learn more about them, and to share that knowledge. With this encouragement, I have written several articles for NCBA Elder Law and Health Law section newsletters. These projects started to change my thoughts when I saw the need for a particular resource — from ‘someone ‘should make this’ to ‘I should make this.’
“Professor Mewhinney is also great at making sure students get out into the community and showing them a broader pictures of aging that I think is necessary to be a good elder law attorney. Being able to see this big picture of law and aging helped me to identify the need for a resource like the one I ended up creating.”
The voting laws enacted by the states are under attack in lawsuits throughout the country, including North Carolina.
The American Civil Liberties Union, on its website, says 30 states require voters to present identification to vote in federal, state and local elections.
“Research shows that more than 21 million Americans do not have government-issued photo identification; a disproportionate number of these Americans are low-income, racial and ethnic minorities and elderly … (T)hese laws impede access to the polls and are at odds with the fundamental right to vote.”
Says McKee, “People’s rights being are threatened, and I want to seize the opportunity to advocate for them.”