In 2016, voters went to the polls for the first time in a presidential election without the full force of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that states with the longest histories of discriminatory voting did not need the approval of their voting changes from the federal government, a practice known as preclearance. As a result, various forms of voter suppression, including the reduction of early voting and voter identification laws, have become the new normal. These type of laws negatively affect minorities, particularly African-Americans. What do you do if you want to cast your vote and do not have access to a government-issued ID? Enter Kat Calvin and Project ID.
Named one of Fast Company’s 100 Creative People, Kat Calvin has tackled many business challenges but addressing voter IDs is a whole new world. As a politically engaged, serial entrepreneur Calvin realized the severity of the legislative defeat in the Shelby County v. Holder case and its effects on the 2016 national election.
“Nobody was doing IDs,” she tells ESSENCE. And soon the idea of Spread the Vote, which “aims to close the gap between registered voters and voter turnout by educating and empowering voter” and Project ID came about.
There are 21 million eligible voters who do not have government-issued identification. It’s easy to forget but Calvin clearly states that “IDs are about every aspect of life. IDs are about people lives.” Project ID is an ongoing campaign specifically in voter-ID states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.
“We had a client who had a stroke and because she didn’t have ID on her, she was listed as a Jane Doe at the hospital. She was in a coma and it took her family a long time to find her. When we got her ID she said she would never let it out of her sight. IDs are everything,” Calvin says. From the elderly to veterans to domestic violence survivors, Project ID aims to help countless Americans obtain identification.
One of Calvin’s goals is to secure an average of 100 identifications each week through campaign #GetUsto100. She has help in the form of 50 employees across nine states as well as active volunteer staff. Calvin is proud her team consists of mostly African-American woman, because of the devastating effects of voter and photo-ID laws have in the black community. Plus Calvin isn’t shy to share that she has “the best team in the world and really amazing volunteers. Every day I get to work with people I really love.” Ultimately, Project ID aims to be in 22 photo-ID states by the 2020 elections.
How does she keep everything running? Close to 80% of her organization’s funding for training, recruitment, and IDs comes from grants and large donations. A big supporter is New Media Ventures, a seed fund and national network of angel investors investing in entrepreneurs and activists media disrupting democracy. The remaining monies are from online donations.
When asked about women who inspire her, Calvin quickly mentions civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, whose name bears Spread the Vote’s monthly subscriber list, Hamer’s Heroes. Hamer famously said she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” when sharing her frustration with the Jim Crow laws of the South.
Calvin also does not hesitate to mention her grandmother, who watched her parents count their money to ensure they had enough to vote. Though her grandmother is disheartened by “modern-day poll taxes” as she calls recent voter-ID legislation, Calvin is optimistic.
“In [the] 2018 [mid-term elections], we turned a corner. My hope is that we’ll have a politically engaged electorate, especially within their communities. I hope everyone works year-round,” she says.
Ijeoma S. Nwatu is a freelance writer and communications specialist. She’s also a proud Nigerian. Say hello via Twitter @ijeomasnwatu.