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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

First this hour, the debate over requiring government-issued photo ID at the polls. With the presidential election on the horizon, that debate is picking up steam. Backers argue that it cuts down on voter fraud. Opponents insist it's a burden on the elderly and the poor.

We're going to focus now on South Carolina, one of several states that have passed voter ID laws. It's currently waiting for approval from the U.S. Justice Department.

The question, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, is whether the measure discriminates against certain voters.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Most people have a hard time believing that in this day and age anyone has trouble getting a photo ID. But they haven't met 61-year-old sharecropper Willie Blair, at least that's the name his stepfather gave him.

So you went by Willie Blair.

WILLIE BLAIR: Yeah, yeah, all my life.

FESSLER: But his birth certificate says his real name is Willie Lee McCoy. This was never a problem, until he tried to get a photo ID so he could receive Social Security benefits and vote if the new law goes into effect.

RAYMOND EVANS: And I have been up and down and around and around.

FESSLER: That's Blair's cousin, Raymond Evans. Blair never went to school, so Evans has been helping him through a bureaucratic maze that would challenge even the most highly educated. It's been very frustrating.

EVANS: You can't get a birth certificate without a Social Security card. You can't get a Social Security card without ID. You can't get the ID without either one of those.

FESSLER: So Blair had to produce copies of his children's birth certificates and numerous other documents to try to prove his identity. He also had to get the Social Security Administration to change the name it had for him in its files. When we spoke, Evans was still trying to figure out how Blair could show proof of residency. He lives with his aunt in a small trailer in Sumter, South Carolina. Everything's in her name.

EVANS: He don't have any income to pay any bills. He don't own a bank account because he don't have ID.

DR. BRENDA WILLIAMS: This problem is really widespread.

FESSLER: Brenda Williams is a local doctor who's spent countless hours and thousands of dollars trying to help people, mostly low-income African-Americans, to get ID. She says she's seen it all, no birth certificates, misspelled names, incorrect birthdates, certificates that say things like, Baby Boy Montgomery. Many here were born years ago at home with the help of a midwife, when paperwork wasn't a big deal, until now.

WILLIAMS: So, here we have a gentleman, decent, honest American citizen, has had to jump through hoops of fire in order to get a photo identification so that he could vote.

FESSLER: And why, she asks? Sponsors of voter ID laws here and elsewhere, mostly Republicans, say it's to prevent fraud, to make sure that those who come to the polls are who they say they are. But here's Chris Whitmire, a spokesman for the State Election Commission.

CHRIS WHITMIRE: We have no record of or any confirmed case of that in South Carolina in recent history.

FESSLER: Still, Whitmire thinks that those without ID, an estimated 200,000 voters, will be able to get it fairly easily if and when the Justice Department gives the OK. County election offices plan to provide free photo registration cards to those who come in and verbally confirm their date of birth and Social Security number. For those who live a long distance away, that's a hurdle.

WHITMIRE: But it's not a brick wall. I haven't seen the case where that person will be disenfranchised and they have no option to vote.

FESSLER: Brenda Williams is skeptical. The people she helps have faced many hurdles.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Been running for Jesus a long time. Ain't got tired yet, well. Been running for Jesus a long time.

FESSLER: Outside a trailer in the small town of Mayesville, Williams sings thanks with several people, including Thelma Hodge, who lives here. Hodge just got her birth certificate after five years of trying. She never had one before. She always thought she was born in 1942, but it turns out it was 1941.

THELMA HODGE: Woo. Yes. Yeah, look at that.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Got your birth certificate.

FESSLER: Always on alert, Williams stops a young man walking by.

WILLIAMS: Do you have an ID from the highway department?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, ma'am. Sure don't.

WILLIAMS: Uh-huh.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Because I got my - my name is spelled different from my birth certificate and my Social Security card.

FESSLER: She gives him the name of a lawyer who'll handle his case for free. Last month, the state offered to drive anyone who needed a ride to the DMV to get their photo ID. Only 21 people took advantage of it. Williams says that's because transportation isn't the issue. But state DMV director Kevin Shwedo says the problem isn't as widespread as many think.

KEVIN SCHWEDO: And where we've got those individuals that just need a warm body to help them, we have bent over backwards to try to accommodate them. Now, that is nowhere in my mission statement, other than I want everybody that needs their credential to get one.

FESSLER: So, I told him about Willie Blair. The next day, DMV workers drove to his aunt's trailer and had her sign an affidavit that he lived there so he could get his ID, which he did. Brenda Williams says that's great, but that thousands more still need help.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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