State Politics

NC DMV says it messed up by rejecting 86-year-old woman seeking voter ID

Reba Bowser and her son, Ed, were all smiles last Saturday (Feb 6) after he helped her fill out her voter registration application in Asheville. But she was turned away from the Asheville DMV office on Monday when she applied for the photo ID she'll need in order to vote in the March 15 primary.
Reba Bowser and her son, Ed, were all smiles last Saturday (Feb 6) after he helped her fill out her voter registration application in Asheville. But she was turned away from the Asheville DMV office on Monday when she applied for the photo ID she'll need in order to vote in the March 15 primary. Amy Lee Knisley

The state DMV commissioner says his agency was wrong to turn away an 86-year-old Asheville woman who applied this week for a photo ID, which she’ll need to vote next month.

“We messed that one up,” DMV Commissioner Kelly J. Thomas said in an interview. “We made a mistake. We’re going to try to correct it on Friday.”

The plight of this aspiring voter brought to light a little-known fallback option for North Carolinians who don’t have all the paperwork they need to prove their identity and receive a voter ID card.

Although state officials have not publicized this in the past, Thomas said the Division of Motor Vehicles allows citizens in some cases to sign affidavits – promising certain things they otherwise are unable to prove. That’s what DMV will invite Reba Miller Bowser to do on Friday.

Bowser has lived in North Carolina since 2012. She was eager to vote this year, so her son helped her fill out a voter registration application last weekend. He drove her to their local DMV office on Monday for the photo identification card she needs under North Carolina’s 2013 voter ID law.

We messed that one up. We made a mistake. We’re going to try to correct it on Friday.

Kelly J. Thomas, N.C. DMV commissioner

She carried a pile of papers, hoping to satisfy North Carolina’s lengthy documentation requirements for ID cards. DMV-issued driver’s licenses and non-driver IDs are among six types of photo identification cards that will be accepted for voting, starting with the primary election scheduled for March 15.

“It became kind of an exciting thing to do, and we went to the DMV on Monday – and got totally deflated,” said her son, Ed Bowser.

On her 1929 Pennsylvania birth certificate, she was identified as Reba Witmer Miller. She took her husband’s surname when they married in 1950, and the change was reflected on her Social Security card and her expired New Hampshire driver’s license: Reba M. Bowser.

All this was not sufficient proof that she was really, truly Reba Miller Bowser.

Proving her maiden name

“The DMV was saying they need something that verifies that ‘M’ stands for ‘Miller,’” said Amy Lee Knisley, Bowser’s daughter-in-law. “She’s been voting and getting driver’s licenses, and traveling in the Caribbean and Mexico, all those 60 odd years. And the state of North Carolina decides none of that is good enough for us.”

Reba Bowser was a Republican in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, but she is registering in North Carolina as politically unaffiliated. Her son went online this week trying to obtain a copy of her 1950 Pennsylvania marriage license, which might serve as proof of her changed name.

She’s discouraged. She doesn’t want to try again. So we’ve got to get her out of that mood.

Amy Lee Knisley, Reba Bowser’s daughter-in-law

But after her rejection at the DMV office, she was ready to give up.

“She’s discouraged,” Knisley said Wednesday. “She doesn’t want to try again. So we’ve got to get her out of that mood.”

Bowser’s disappointment attracted plenty of social media attention. More than 24,000 Facebook users shared Knisley’s online post. It sparked back-and-forth arguments that mirrored the sharp partisan division across North Carolina over the state’s voter ID law.

Supporters say the photo ID requirements will reduce voter fraud. Critics say the law presents obstacles that will unduly deter people from voting just because they can’t satisfy DMV’s ID requirements.

Knisley, a faculty member at Warren Wilson College, worries about other women who may have difficulty proving that they changed their names when they married long ago.

“I’ve seen a sprinkling of comments from women saying, ‘Yes, I have had this kind of experience,’” Knisley said. “This probably will happen to women more often, because they change their names more often.”

A constitutional challenge to the voter ID law is under review by a federal judge in Winston-Salem. In a trial that ended Feb. 1, opponents argued that DMV makes it too difficult for voters to get photo ID cards.

Penda Hair, an attorney with Advancement Project, a civil rights organization representing the NAACP, described the DMV as “unresponsive and antiquated” in her closing arguments.

“DMV is a barrier,” Hair told Judge Thomas Schroeder. “It is a barrier because getting there is a barrier. It is a barrier because getting the underlying documents is a barrier. And that includes the fact that DMV has, until recently, required an exact match between the name on the birth certificate and the name on the Social Security card. And even loosening the requirements a little, it is not clear that voters will have even the expanded list of documents.”

Hair said the list of alternative documents that voters can use to obtain an ID “has been secret, it is changed over time, and it seemed to be applied inconsistently at the whim of particular examiners or particular locations.”

DMV’s website includes a PDF file, updated in January, detailing all the requirements for non-driving photo ID cards. To get a card, you must provide documents to prove your age and name, Social Security number, citizenship and residency.

The affidavit option

If you don’t have a court order, marriage certificate or divorce decree to establish that you changed your name in the past, you can sign a DMV form DL-101 – an affidavit in which you affirm that you have legally changed your name – at the DMV office.

“They can receive the identification by signing a name-change affidavit,” said Thomas, the DMV commissioner. “We accept that as another alternative. The citizen should never have been turned away.”

Affidavits also are an option for applicants who don’t have documents they need to prove they are North Carolina residents.

Irving Joyner, a Durham lawyer for the NAACP who has been involved with the voter ID legal challenge for nearly three years, said he was not aware the state Division of Motor Vehicles offered an opportunity to provide a sworn statement about name changes.

“We’ve not heard of that before,” Joyner said. “This mix of mismatched names is a common problem for Latinos. We don’t know how many people are impacted by this problem, but obviously this is a problem.”

Joyner said he and other attorneys plan to look deeper into the Bowser case. He said he has represented ID applicants over the past few years who were never offered the option of an affidavit.

“It would appear – and we’re looking into it – that this was a resolution that was tailor-made for this one participant,” Joyner said. “It certainly smells like it’s something that’s not available to all.”

Thomas said Bowser was mistakenly rejected by an untrained employee who greets visitors to the local Asheville DMV office.

“The greeter is a new hire, and she hasn’t been to examiner school,” Thomas said. He said the employee will receive training.

Ed Bowser said the DMV greeter consulted other officials before rejecting his mother’s application for an ID card.

Knisley said late Thursday that her mother-in-law has an appointment to meet DMV officials in her Asheville apartment Friday afternoon. Heartened by her social media fame, Reba Bowser is ready to give DMV another chance.

“She was feeling better about it today,” Knisley said. “Everybody at her church had seen her picture on Facebook.”

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, @Road_Worrier

Photo ID requirement starts with March primary

Under a 2013 state law, voters must use one of six types of photo ID to prove their identity:

N.C. Driver’s License or Permit or State Identification Card issued by the Division of Motor Vehicles. The cards may be expired, but by no more than four years.

Veterans ID Card issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Not accepted if it has expired.

U.S. Passport or Passport Card, unexpired.

U.S. Military ID card issued by the U.S. Department of Defense, including those issued to dependents, retired military personnel, or civilians, unexpired.

Out-of-state driver’s license or non-operator’s ID card. Voters who register within 90 days of Election Day may present an unexpired out-of-state license or non-operator ID issued by the District of Columbia or any state, commonwealth, or U.S. territory.

Tribal ID Card issued by a federally recognized tribe that is unexpired or was issued less than eight years ago. Or unexpired cards issued by state-recognized tribes, if approved by the State Board of Elections.

Reasonable impediment clause

Voters who do not have one of the six approved IDs can still file provisional ballots if they sign an affidavit at the polls saying a “reasonable impediment” prevented them from getting the ID.

Staff writer Anne Blythe