New laws in 11 states require that citizens show some form of government identification to vote.
While that requirement can be met with many types of photo ID, such as a passport or even a concealed-weapons permit, the most common solution involves a trip to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Many will emerge hours later with a state photo ID good at the polls.
But some people -- a younger person who may have held off driving, or an older driver with a lapsed license -- may decide simply to get a new driver's license.
That could be a costly decision.
Insurance companies consider the very young and the very old to be higher-risk drivers. (See "The cheapest age for car insurance.") Adding a new driver to a household could provoke an unwelcome pre-election bump in insurance premiums. Renewing an old license after a lapse could be just as expensive.
An ongoing battle
As many as 10 percent of voters do not have a government-issued photo ID, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
"Tens of thousands could have problems voting," says Jonathan Brater, who serves as counsel for the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. The laws -- recently approved in Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin -- generally require a voter to present a driver's license or government-issued photo ID.
The laws face legal challenges in several states, pitting politicians who claim laws are needed to prevent vote fraud against activists who say the problem is nonexistent.
The AARP, a major advocate of driver safety, says so far it hasn't seen a major upsurge in older Americans getting or keeping their driver's licenses as a result of the laws. But it opposes the requirements.
"We stand firm against preventing unjust and unfair laws that could prevent older Americans from exercising their constitutional right to vote," says AARP spokesperson Khelan Bhatia.
A driver's license is expensive
A driver's license is a costly solution for those who wish to vote.
"Many members of Generation Y have put off getting their license," says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst for CarInsurance.com. She thinks they would be more inclined to get their driver's license than a state voter ID.
Yet those drivers typically face a hefty "inexperience surcharge" that can double the car insurance bill of the household where they live. (See "What a teen driver does to your insurance.")
On the opposite end of the spectrum, older drivers who should be surrendering their licenses for medical or physical reasons may hang on to them in order to have a valid ID at voting time. Insurance rates begin to rise again after age 65 or so.
Younger and older drivers "are going to add more risk, and rates will increase," Gusner warns. She offers three caveats for would-be voters considering a driver's license:
- If you do decide to get or renew a driver's license, you will have an effect on the insurance bill of anyone you live with. Insurance companies calculate premiums based on the driving records of all people who have access to the insured car.
- State laws and insurance companies may allow you to be specifically omitted from a policy with a named driver exclusion. Premiums would not reflect the additional driver -- but that driver would not be covered in the event of an accident.
- College students who get a driver's license but go to school more than a certain distance away -- typically at least 100 miles -- usually aren't required to be listed on a parent's policy. An insurer may require that the student be added during vacations.
Free, but not necessarily easy
The legal landscape could change in your state before the election. You may have several alternatives to a driver's license available.
Older drivers in some states may be able to present an expired driver's license, or if they have surrendered their license, the original surrender paperwork. Some states will allow drivers to present a suspended license at the polls, but others specify valid licenses only. (That may mean a driver under suspension might have to pay hundreds of dollars to regain legal standing to vote.)
A voter ID is typically free and has no effect on car insurance.
Voters will have to pay for a copy of their birth certificate or other required documents if they don't have them on hand, Brater says.
On top of that, "a lot of people have a hard time even getting to the DMV," Brater says. More than 10 million people live at least 10 miles away from a DMV office and have no access to a vehicle to get there during regular business hours.
"There are significant costs for people who don't have a lot of disposable income," he says.
Media in various states are reporting long waits and much confusion at DMV offices among those who are trying to get a driver's license or photo ID. Brater says he recently tried to renew his driver's license, but had to leave because the wait was so long.