Kat Calvin: Helping People Get IDs and Register to Vote


When we interviewed Kat Calvin in March, we were one week into lockdown in California. We had no idea what was to come, how the country or the world would suffer or just how long this would drag on. And here it is August, with no real end in sight. We also had no idea in March that the struggle against systemic racism would take hold of our country and lead to months of protests. Most of us would not have predicted that the US Post Office would be in the center of political partisan attacks.

We imagine that if we interviewed Kat today our conversation might have tackled different topics. We would be able to talk to her about the fact that Kamala Harris just made history by becoming the first Black and South Asian American woman to be selected as a major party's vice presidential candidate. And we would have been able to get her frontline opinion about mail in ballots and absentee voting.

Lawyer, activist and social entrepreneur Kat Calvin, the Founder and Executive Director of Spread the Vote and the Co-Founder and CEO of Project ID has spent the last few years making sure as many people who want to vote will be able to exercise the right to do so. Many have had to pivot since March, so we would guess Kat’s work has taken some major twists and turns since we last spoke. But her essential mission still remains.

Here's an excerpt from our interview with Kat Calvin.

Passionistas: Talk about Spread the Vote. What inspired you to start it?

Kat: At Spread the Vote we help people get government issued photo ID, which they use for jobs, housing, to get food at many food banks to sleep in many shelters, et cetera. Everything you need an ID for in life. And then in many states across the country, they also use them to vote. So we help folks get all of the documents required — birth certificates, proofs of residency insurance, insurance identity, et cetera. We pay for everything. We provide transportation, advocacy at the DMV and government offices and do whatever it takes to get an ID of their hands.

And then when an election comes around, we make sure they're all registered to vote. And then we do a lot of voter education. 77% of our clients have never voted before. So we do a lot of helping just walk folks through the process and what's going to be on the ballot and how to vote, et cetera. And then we take them to the polls. So, that's sort of the process A to Z.

I started it after the 2016 elections. Actually we're about to have our third birthday. I started December of 16, but we count our official birthday is May 6, which is when we launched our first chapter. And so now we're in 12 states. We're working hard, getting ideas every day — until like a month ago. And now we're all just like waiting for the zombies to come.

Passionistas: Was there an inciting incident that inspired you to do this, or was it just something that had been on your mind?

Kat: I would say the election in November of 2016 was the inciting incident. I had studied voting rights in law school and done a lot of work around it and the Voting Rghts Act, but we still had one at that time. I didn't really feel that it was a really pressing me to like go into voting rights work. And I went into some other spaces. And then when the VRA was declined in 2013, we started to see a lot of things change about voting in America, particularly voter ID laws were being passed pretty quickly. And then the '16 elections were the first national elections where we didn't have the protections of the voting rights act and where we saw the effects of a lot of these new laws and rules, including the effects of voter ID laws.

I had run some other organizations and I had some health issues. I had decided to retire. That lasted a year, then the election happened. And so then I knew I had to get started again. And there were a lot of really fantastic organizations trying to fight voter ID laws through judicial or legislative remedies, which have been less successful than would be desired, but there weren't any organizations, national organizations just getting IDs. So that made sense to me as a good place to start.

Passionistas: Talk about the nuts and bolts of it. How do you go about finding the people who need these ideas and how do you help them?

Kat: Well, there are over 21 million people in the country over the age of 18 who do not have government issued photo ID. So finding people who need help getting IDs, not a challenge. We partner with a ton of organizations, any type of organization that works with the same 11% of the population that we work with. If you don't have an ID, then you can't get a job, get housing, et cetera. So it's a large percentage of people who are experiencing homelessness, a lot of returning citizens, a lot of seniors and students with low or no incomes. So we partner with shelters and food banks and prisons and jails and public defenders and schools and senior centers and just all of those types of organizations.

And we either go to them or they refer people to us, depending on the situation. We work with a lot of domestic violence, the shelters. And so, we have to be specially trained and they refer people to us versus if we're going to a food bank once a week. So we really work with each community based on what works best for them.

And then we have our mostly volunteers. We have over 600 trained volunteers, but then we also have a few field staff who go into these spaces and connect with the clients. We also get a lot of people who call us or email us, or fill out a form online that we have, but they all get connected with someone who then walks them through that process of helping them get those documents, paying for everything, helping them get to final records and the DMV and wherever they need to go and making sure they get the idea in their hand.

Passionistas: Why is this so important right now?

Kat: Now it's important because there are over 21 million people in this country who don't have the ID. They need to see a doctor, right? There are really immediate needs. You can't do anything really without an ID. And so when you think about people who need to get employed, one of the first things that happens almost every time we get someone IDs, they say, I can apply for jobs now, or we have a lot of people who get jobs. I can't start them because they don't have ID. And so you cannot escape poverty without an ID. You can't get off the streets independently without an ID. And so being able to help someone get that means that they are able to pursue employment opportunities. A lot of cities and shelters havehousing placement services, but you can't get one without ID.

And the reason we work with a lot of government agencies and shelters, is because they don't have the capacity and knowledge to get IDs. So, we've got people lining up around multiple city blocks to go to food banks right now, most food banks require ID. So they're necessary for life. They are, they can literally be life and death. And we've seen that more than once, but they are also a requirement to be able to change one circumstance. And then on top of that in a quite few States, you need an ID to be able to vote. And so if you don't have that identification, then you don't have the ability to exercise a basic fundamental rights.

Passionistas: This is also for us an obvious question. I mean, we need to get an ID. We need to know the real ID that's coming out. So we have to gather together our social security card and a electric bill and go to the DMV, but someone who's homeless and living on the streets, doesn't have an electric bill and doesn't maybe have access to the social security card. So how do you help them actually qualify to even get an ID?

Passionistas: Obviously the current state of voting rights issues is a little crazy. There's a lot going on. There's a big election coming up. So why is this issue important and why should people care about what's going on with voting rights right now?

Kat: Life is interesting right now. So there's a couple of things happening. The first is we have zero idea what life is going to look like in November. You know, hopefully I will be allowed to leave my house soon, or I might burn it down. We don't know what the world is going to look like. And so a lot of us, I think most of us in this space are really trying to build out like 12 contingency plans. Everyone saw the disaster in Wisconsin forcing people to vote in fewer polling places where now they've had multiple COVID cases that are coming out of that situation.

And so everyone, I think, recognizes that regardless of what the world looks like in November and whether we're allowed back out, it's not going to be anything close to normal. We're still going to have to avoid gathering in large groups. And it's going to be very, very important to keep as many people away from the polling places as possible so that people who have to vote in person are able to. So there is a big movement right now towards vote by mail, which is fantastic.

Vote by mail is by no means a panacea. It should not be the only option in any state. However, it should be part of a really great comprehensive voting package. And so the goal is to get all of the states that don't have vote by mail or easy vote by mail. A lot of states, you can do it if you are absentee with certain excuses, things like that, to open that up so that anyone can vote by mail, which would significantly reduce the number of people that go to polling places and we'll have some increase on, on voter turnout as well.

So I think that's one big thing we're seeing. Another big thing we're seeing is trying to get young people to be poll workers, poll workers are traditionally heavily elderly ladies. My mother is always a poll worker. My mother is always one of the youngest people there and there, there are these wonderful, amazing, dedicated women who do this. And, and you know, a lot of men, there's a lot of older ladies and it is poor work hard. It's a miserable job. I always have to help my mother clean up and set up. And it's a very difficult thing that I think they go very under appreciated. But right now the exact population who we really need to stay inside and be protected is the population that usually works the polls.

And so there are now some efforts being made to really try to get younger people, to be trained, to work the polls. In many states, you get paid some amount of money in order to do it. You know, it's an important service and we really need a different demographic to come out and choose to do that.

Passionistas: So what's the most rewarding part of your career?

Kat: Oh, the people who, uh, who we have good IDs and, you know, we get just every day, there's, you know, there's so many stories that come in of peoples whose lives have changed and people who didn't have IDs for sometimes six months sometimes, you know, I think the person who we helped get an ID who didn't have one the longest was 40 years and everything in between. And just knowing that every single day we're able to help someone get the thing that they need to change their lives, that they couldn't get on their own. And that was the big barrier between them living the lives that they, they want to live, that they hope to live, um, and stuck in the same place. So just getting to do that every day and getting to do that with a really amazing group of people, uh, is, is completely rewarding.

Visit SpreadTheVote.org and ProjectID.org to learn more about the work Kat is doing. And be sure to tune in, to Vote! The Podcast with her cohost, Andrea Hayley, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Register for the Passionistas Project Women's Equality Summit to hear Kat's live panel "How far have we come in a 100 years? Making sure all women can vote" on Saturday, August 22, 3:00pm EDT | NOON PDT. REGISTER

Listen to Kat’s full episode of The Passionistas Project Podcast here.

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