Something many of us take for granted, if we’ve never been without it, is how vitally important it is to have photo ID. In this day and age you can’t do pretty much anything without ID—from accessing public benefits to renting an apartment to voting, and so much more. So for this week’s episode, Rebecca sat back down with a dear friend who’s been leading the charge when it comes to ensuring that 26 million Americans have access to the IDs they need to escape poverty, access benefits, vote, and be fully part of American society—and that’s Kat Calvin. She’s the founder of Spread the Vote and the Project ID Action Fund and author of a new book called American Identity in Crisis: Notes from an Accidental Activist. They had a far-ranging conversation about the story behind the organizations she started and her new book; how she got involved in helping people get IDs; who doesn’t have ID in the United States and why it matters; why the U.S. ID crisis is both an economic justice issue and a democracy issue; and lots more.

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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome back to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I go behind the music with visionary leaders and lightworkers working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance we all deserve. I think of it kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy.

And something I learned years ago as a legal aid lawyer is how much it matters to have photo identification, something that you might take for granted if you’ve never been without it. Well, it turns out you can’t do pretty much anything without ID in the U.S., from accessing public benefits to getting a job, to getting an apartment and lots of other things, too.

So, for this week’s episode, I am so incredibly excited to sit down with a dear, dear friend who has been leading the charge when it comes to ensuring that 26 million Americans who don’t have ID have access to the IDs that they need to escape poverty, access benefits, vote, and otherwise be fully part of American society. And that’s Kat Calvin. She’s the CEO of the Project ID Action Fund. She’s also the author of a brand-new book called American Identity in Crisis: Notes From an Accidental Activist. I had the pleasure of getting to meet Kat for the first time several years ago as part of a Rockwood leadership program we were both in—more on that another time—and always enjoy our conversations off the air. So, I am really, really, really excited to have you on the show for the first time, Kat. I’ll tell folks they can find more about you and your work and a link to your book in show notes, but welcome, welcome, welcome. And congratulations on the book!

KAT CALVIN: Thank you. I’m so excited to finally be on your famous show [laughs] and also very excited that I have a book!

VALLAS: Oh, my God. I’m so excited. Let’s hold, can you hold it up for the screen? ‘Cause it’s like—

CALVIN: Oh. Oh, of course I can.

VALLAS: Yay! Congratulations, friend. I know you’ve been working on this for a long, long time.

CALVIN: [laughs]

VALLAS: So, before we get into the book and why you wrote it and the story behind it and all those things, I generally start by asking my guests to introduce themselves the way that they wanna be introduced to Off-Kilter’s listeners. And I’d love to give you a chance to share how you come to this work.

CALVIN: Sure! Hi, I’m Kat, listeners. It’s nice to meet you. I will not start at birth. So, I’ve always been, I’m a person who has worked and run non-profits and has sort of always sought solutions to economic equality in a variety of ways. And I think the way that I came to, well, first of all, what I do, I run a 501(c)(3), Spread the Vote plus Project ID. And what we do in 21 states is we help people get government-issued photo ID. So, like Vallas said, there are 26 million American adults who don’t have ID. It’s more than the population of every state except California and Texas. And without that, like she said, you can’t do anything. And so, when you’re looking at folks who are trapped in homelessness and poverty, people who have been touched by the justice system, a lot of senior citizens, former foster kids, people with disabilities, they’re all of the groups of folks who are most vulnerable: 11 percent of the population. They don’t have the IDs that can help them escape those realities or help them escape poverty or homelessness or rebuild their lives.

And so, we work on the ground either ourselves or with partner organizations to help folks get IDs, which sounds easy until you think about the last time you went to the DMV, and you remember [laughs] that, first of all, it’s terrible. Second, it’s expensive. And B, you have to take a huge stack of documents, right? You need your birth certificate, which 15 to 18 million American adults don’t have their birth certificates or access to their birth or citizenship records. And go to Vital Records without an ID, try to get a birth certificate, and see how hard that is.

And then you need proof of residency, which if you’re unhoused, really hard, right? If you’re someone who is a senior living with family, and your name isn’t on any of the utility bills or the lease or anything, like, there are a lot of ways that that’s really hard. You need every single record for every time you changed your name, right? There’s all of these things that you need that if you are unhoused, if you— You’re unemployed, right? Because you don’t have an ID, so you can’t legally get a job. It’s very difficult. It’s very expensive. And so, we have to help guide folks through that process and do whatever it takes, pay the fees, get the documents to help them actually get an ID.

And so, then on the political side, in 2020, we started the Project ID Action Fund, because I realized well, I can’t get 26 million people an ID [laughs] one person at a time, great as that would be. And so, we need to change the laws. And so, we’re working on legislation across different states. We’ve got two great bills in California, work in some other states. We work with local government on different ways that they can increase ID access. But we also have a bill in Congress, the IDs for an Inclusive Democracy Act, that would just make us like every other country in the world and just create a free federal ID that everybody could have. And so, that’s my real life goal and mission is to make sure that every single American has an ID.

And the way, the reason the book has the Notes From an Accidental Activist piece is ‘cause I’ve always been an activist, but I really just accidentally became an ID activist. I started Spread the Vote after the 2016 election when I had been following American election law for a while. I’d studied in a law school. But until Shelby County v. Holder and the systematic dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, we had been doing all right. Not perfect, but we were all right. And then all of a sudden, we were not. And then the election happened, and I was really focused on voter ID because like most Americans, I didn’t know that there was an ID issue in America. And then it took about 45 minutes for us to realize, oh, wait, this is a real, this is a really big deal. And this is about so much more than voting.
And so, we really shifted towards the Project ID side and making sure that folks have IDs. But then during elections, we do a lot of work to get folks out to vote, and we run the only national program to help incarcerated folks vote by mail in jail and a lot of other programs in order to actually help the folks who we’re helping get IDs be able to get to the polls. And so, it’s now become my life mission. [delighted laugh]

VALLAS: My God. There’s so much in there, and we’re gonna hopefully have time to unpack each of those different pieces. And I feel like you just gave us such a great arc that’s kind of the outline for a lot of the conversation we’re gonna have, Kat. So, I wanna back us up just a little bit and start with the problem that maybe people are listening to this and going, “Man, I had no idea of the scale of that problem,” right? Twenty-six million Americans who don’t have ID. You told a little bit of the story of how you first became aware of this. It was because of some of the systematic dismantlement by conservatives of the Voting Rights Act. Tell a little bit of that story of how you became aware of this problem. And then who are the people who don’t have ID? You started to tick off some of the groups, but let’s start a little bit with what is the problem that you are seeking to solve here? And then we’re gonna get a little more deeply into the policy solutions.

CALVIN: Yeah. So, it’s actually, it’s a story in three parts. It’s why does this problem exist? How did we discover it? And then who is impacted by it? And the reason that this problem exists is because of 9/11. The anniversary is coming up in a couple of weeks. The 19 9/11 terrorists had something like 36 state IDs that they got relatively legally. And so, this is why Real ID, which the joke in the ID community is that Real ID is never actually going to be [laughing] implemented! They keep postponing it. But the reason we have it is that that was the 9/11 Commission’s reaction to this problem was, well, we’ll just make the IDs harder to get. But obviously, it’s been 22 years or something now, and we still don’t have actual Real ID and for a variety of reasons. But the states didn’t wait. Every single state, almost overnight, made the process and requirements for getting an ID much more difficult.

And the thing about state DMVs is, for the most part, they’re not governed by statute. In some states they are, or there are certain things that they have to go to the legislature to do. But for the most part, it’s just a person. In D.C., it’s just, it’s just the mayor. Bowser can just decide one day that everybody has to give her their left shoe in order to get an ID, and that’s just the way it is. But it’s just a person who decides. And so, they all made it overnight incredibly difficult. So, that’s why for most of us, we don’t remember it being that hard, right? When I was 16, I got my driver’s license. It wasn’t nearly as difficult. We didn’t need all of the documents of everything that you need now. And so, it’s hard for people to understand why it’s so difficult for folks now, because then once you’ve had it, you renew or you this or that, but it’s not the same challenging process.

But it’s also why in the 2016 election, you started to hear all these stories of seniors and World War II veterans who’d been voting their whole lives, and suddenly they couldn’t vote. Well, it’s because voter ID laws were implemented, and these seniors who had always been able to vote, they couldn’t get IDs because they don’t, you know, a lot of seniors like my grandmother, they don’t drive anymore, right? So, they don’t really need a driver’s license anymore. They don’t really need an ID if they’re living at home or whatever. And so, all of a sudden, you’re telling them, “Well, you gotta go to the DMV and get an ID, but you have to have your birth certificate,” which a lot of seniors don’t have, etc. And so, it was really, it was 9/11 that changed the rules and really suddenly cut out a lot of people, which is what we do in this country, right? We react too much to problems, and we don’t think about all of the consequences of those reactions.

The way that we found out about this is that we were thinking about voter ID, like I said. And so, we launched in Georgia for a variety of reasons. It has an incredible activist community. I had been talking to people all over the country about the issue and solving the issue. We had a lot of groups in Georgia saying, “Hey, we really need this. Come on out. We know we have a problem that we have all these registration orgs, and we’re all registering voters. But we all know that many of the people we’re registering can’t actually vote ‘cause they need IDs, and it’s not a thing that we can tackle.”

So, we went out there, and almost immediately, we started talking to people and saying, “Hey, we wanna get you a voter ID.” And to avoid the fact that obviously, voter ID laws are poll taxes, states will often implement a free voter ID that, first of all, nobody knows about. And second, in states like Georgia, they’re just as hard to get really as a DMV ID. And so, we would go to people and say, “Hey, we wanna get you this voter ID.” And they would just look at us and say, “I don’t have a job. I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight. I can’t feed my kids. I need a regular ID that I can do things with. I don’t need this free voter ID that’s not gonna let me be able to build my life back up.” And we realized really quickly, like, that is when I started to understand that this was a bigger problem than voting, which was another thing. I’ve always had, I’ve had a passport since I was an infant. I’ve always had an ID. I had no idea, like most of us, that this was a problem. So, I never really judge people who don’t know, [laughing] ‘cause I know! I had an ID org, and I didn’t know how big the issue was, right? Like, nobody talks about it. It’s why I wrote a book.

And so, that’s how we figured it out. And we really quickly pivoted and were like, okay, this isn’t gonna work. We have to get people DMV IDs and figure out how do we get them legal IDs in their state that they can use for everything? And then what happens is once you sit down with folks and you help them get the thing they need for their lives, and then you say, “Well, can we talk about voting now?” then they’re like, “Yeah, obviously!” You know, one of the most common things that people say to us when they get an ID is, “I’m a person again.” Because you are absolutely not a person in this country without an ID. And if you’re not a person, you can’t even begin to think about participating in democratic processes ‘cause you don’t think you belong.


CALVIN: So, that’s how we found out. And when it comes to who’s impacted, it’s, like I said, it’s our most vulnerable population, right? So, it’s folks who are formerly incarcerated. It’s foster youth and former foster youth. It’s folks with disabilities. It’s folks who are unhoused. It’s all of the people who we, you know, we do have a caste system in this country, really, and we know it because we all drive past people who clearly desperately need help and don’t see them, right? And it’s all of the people in that untouchables caste, all of those people who are unemployed, who need benefits, who need housing, who have a wide variety of education. I’ve had unhoused folks in my car who went to Columbia, right? Who were lawyers who have all sorts. People do not realize that we are all like two disasters, two medium to minor disasters for most of us from being unhoused. But it’s folks who cannot change their circumstances alone. And especially now, when you look at—
So, what happens is you become unhoused. And right now, we have this huge problem in most of the country because COVID protections are being taken away right now. Eviction and tenant protections are being taken away right now. And so, more people are becoming unhoused. And the thing that happens the second you become unhoused is you lose your things, right? You’re suddenly in the street, or you get evicted, and they throw them away. And then once you’re on the streets, either you lose things, they get stolen, the cops sweep them. And the cops throw away vital documents every single day. And then all of that, and then it’s impossible to get them back. And so, it’s people who need not a handout, but who need assistance to be able to get their lives back under their control.

VALLAS: Hearing you share a little bit of how much paperwork it takes to get ID, I mean, you’re bringing back memories of my legal aid days, and that was really my education, as I mentioned up top, of like, it’s one thing when you lose your wallet or you have your wallet stolen and you gotta go back to the DMV. Like you said, that can be a headache and that might be relatable to folks. But if you don’t have the basic paperwork that you need to be able to prove that you are who you say you are, right? Which is why I so appreciate the way you put that. It’s about like, it’s not just about belonging. It’s about being able to prove you’re a person, being able to prove to the satisfaction of the government that you exist and who you are, right? I mean, there’s an existential level of this, which is part of why I love the title of your book, American Identity in Crisis, right? ‘Cause it literally is an identity crisis if you can’t prove your identity, right, which is what it is not to have ID.

But in my legal aid years, I mean, the memories you’re bringing back right now, as you relate the levels of paperwork it takes and the hoops that people can often have to jump through, I learned about this as a public benefits lawyer, and it wasn’t something I expected to be part of what I was gonna be doing on the other side of law school. But I would be representing folks who, they were eligible for, say, SSI disability benefits or Social Security or food stamps or Medicaid or something like that, and they were having trouble accessing the program. And one of the most common reasons was they couldn’t prove their identity. And so, then it would become sometimes months, sometimes years of having to work across I don’t even know how many different components of bureaucracy to try to get them the one piece of paper that could trigger the next piece of paper that could trigger the next piece of paper so that they could even apply for basic survival benefits, let alone get an apartment, get into stable housing, get a job, all the things, right?

And so, just hearing you describe all that, I feel like we kind of can’t overstate how much bureaucracy can be involved and how untenable that can be for people without that kind of assistance, which was part of why I was so excited to meet you when we were in that Rockwood program, because our mutual friend Rebecca Cokley—everything comes back to the Cokleyverse—had told me about you, had told me what you were doing, and I was, the legal aid lawyer in me was like, “Oh my God! Thank God somebody’s doing this!” Because we can’t just, as you were saying, have this be one person helped at a time, right?


VALLAS: There’s bigger structural problems here, which as you were telling the story, were not created, but certainly exacerbated by the heightened process that has come into being since 9/11.

I wanna bring your book into this conversation. And we’re gonna talk lots more about the issues, but I wanna use the book as a little bit of a vehicle to do that, because as we’re talking, you actually just got the first copies of your book sent to you, and it’s about to go into circulation. What was it like taking this issue that you have worked on for years and turning it into this book? And talk a little bit about the book itself. It really is, it’s a compendium not just of your own story and your own path to becoming an accidental activist, as you put it, but you also tell a lot of the stories of the people that Project ID and Spread the Vote have actually helped get IDs. So, tell the story behind the book.

CALVIN: Yeah, I think that this will probably be the easiest book I ever write because it’s all the stuff I talk about constantly, and I sort of just sat down and just vomited onto the page. And it was just, I just, it happened so naturally because I’ve wanted to write about this forever, because that’s all I’ve talked about for what, eight years now? And it was, I thought it would be much more difficult. No, I do, you know, we’re lawyers, and so we are trained to be too brief at times. And so, there were times where I was like, “Oh, this book could be a one-pager.” [laughing] And then I would think about what else do I add? But then I’d think about it and be like, “Oh, wait. I didn’t tell these 18 stories.” And so, it was a really, it was really fun, but it felt really good because this is an issue I’m constantly just standing on rooftops shouting about. And to be able to put it into writing and put it on a page and know I’m gonna have this book, and it’s gonna be everywhere, and this is gonna be the first step in me making sure that every single person in this country knows that this is an issue was amazing.

The way that I wrote the book is I separated it into, for the most part, there’s a chapter about sort of 9/11 and how this got started and things. But for the most part, each chapter is talking about a different group that is impacted by this. So, I mean, I haven’t even started talking about veterans, which is the group that incenses me the most, because if there’s one group of people who should have an ID, it’s veterans and they don’t. So, veterans, the unhoused, folks with disabilities, young people, folks who are formerly incarcerated, etc. Because that allowed me to weave the story of how we learned about this and how we learned how to solve the problem and how we built the organization into all of the chapters. But at the same time, it allows us to tell stories about individuals and what their struggle was and be able to illustrate how difficult the process is and what some of the different challenges there are for different people. You know, what that process looked like, it gave me a chance to shout out some of our just incredible staff and volunteers who have taken people by the hand and walked them through the whole process.
And then it allowed me to talk about different statistics. My disability chapter, there’s a whole section where I just really rant about how stupidly hard it is to get SSI and how it shouldn’t be and how it’s criminal! Like, we should go to, there should be a war crimes tribunal, seriously. It is, it’s cruel and unusual is what it is. Or talking about veterans and the massive unemployment of veterans and all of these different things. And if you have any questions about if you immediately thought, “Oh, but there’s a VA ID,” read the book! ‘Cause it is not what you think it is! It will help you get a 10 percent discount at Red Robin, and that is all! And so, it gave me a chance to break down this is the issue for this person.

And I think one of the things that you’ll see in the book is that there are things that are similar for everybody, right? Like, getting a birth certificate without an ID is hard for everyone. Doesn’t matter who you are. There’s some states where it is easier than others. Pennsylvanians, great. New York, it is a true, hellish, seventh circle nightmare. But it’s hard for everyone, right? But then there are so many things that are individual, like the challenges that foster youth have or the challenges that young people in general are having because they are getting driver’s licenses at far lower rates than we were the past, right? And so, what that looks like for them or what it looks like when you are formerly incarcerated, and all kinds of different issues. So, I wanted to tell the stories of these real people who we’ve worked with around the country, but then use that to be able to help eliminate what this problem looks like for everybody.

VALLAS: So, I’m gonna put you on the spot to tell maybe story or two from the book of, like, put a face on this. Bring people into this.


VALLAS: We could talk about the issues all day, but I feel like, just as you’re saying right now, these issues don’t come to life until you actually say, “Here are some of the people who are impacted.” So, are there any particular stories you wanna share from the book that are the people that have been helped but who didn’t have ID?

CALVIN: Yeah. So, Miss Diane was this lovely older lady in Virginia, and she hadn’t had an ID in, I think it was 16 years. Her husband had passed away, and she couldn’t access any of their joint bank accounts because she didn’t have ID. But she also had a son who had been incarcerated for 13 years. And I don’t know how many listeners have gone to visit someone in prison, but you need an ID to visit someone in prison. So, she hadn’t been able to see her son in 13 years either. And so, our team of volunteers were working to help her get an ID. But she didn’t have her birth certificate. She was an older lady, and her name had been spelled differently by a variety of government agencies. Listen to me. My legal name is Kelley, and it’s spelled with an E Y because it is symmetrical because that is the right way to spell Kelley. I had a passport. I had to send it in to get renewed. They sent me a new passport with my name spelled wrong even though they had the passport! And so, I think that’s what happens. And it was a passport. I was able to send it back and get a new one, etc. You know, it took a million years ‘cause it does.

But for Diane, in her whole life, her name had been spelled differently in all these different things. And the DMV, they won’t take it. Like, if your name doesn’t have the exact right number of Es and Ns and whatever, they won’t take it. And so, we had to do this whole process of going back and forth, and I really describe it in the book of everything the volunteers had to do. And they literally, they had to drive her an hour to a different town, to county clerks, and to this and that in order to be able to get her her ID so she could see her son after 13 years and so she could access the funds that were hers, but that she couldn’t access without an ID because her husband had passed away. And I think that for me, Miss Diane is such a good example of the way that people could not have IDs and not necessarily be unhoused, right, or anything. This was an older lady who her husband had handled all the banking stuff forever, and she was just living her life, but could never by herself get an ID because the process was so confusing that it took multiple volunteers who do this regularly and our general counsel to be able to figure it out.

I also, I think of a gentleman in Orlando who actually one of our field staff in Orlando, he called me, and he was like, “You gotta talk to this gentleman I just helped. He hasn’t had an ID in 40 years.” And that was like, before him, I think the longest we had that someone hadn’t had an ID was like 32 years. And I was like, “40! What?!” And so, I obviously had to get on the phone with him. And when he was a young man in Florida in the ‘70s, I guess, he had been young and stupid like most of us are and driven a little drunk and got pulled over. But he was Black, and it was, well, anywhere in the country, but particularly in Florida. And so, he had his license taken away, and he had thousands of dollars of fines put on his license, which he didn’t have then, obviously, and he never had. And the thing about those fines is they just grow and grow and grow. And so, he, in his 20s, had his life basically just sort of stripped from him.

And so, by the time that I spoke to him, he was in his 60s, and he had lived with his mother his entire life. He’d never been able to work. He’d always just sort of worked under-the-table jobs. At that time, he was cleaning development projects for some guy who was just paying him under the table. And now he was just trying to get an ID so he could get some senior benefits because his mother obviously was probably gonna pass away soon, and he was gonna need a place to live. And when I asked him, “How would your life have been different if you’d had an ID this whole time?” And he said, “Everything would’ve been different. I would’ve had a life.” And it was such, it was so heartbreaking because everything that he could have done with his life was taken away because of that mistake. And I talk about in the book how the first thing I thought of was all of the famous politicians who are very wealthy and very white and killed people with their cars and still managed to be first lady or senator or whatever. And how the inequality of such a small little piece of plastic, right, can completely change people’s trajectories. And I think about him all the time.

VALLAS: Thank you so much for sharing both of those stories. And my God, right? I mean, just to think, with literally having two different timelines that a person’s life could’ve been on—one where they have the ID and the one where they don’t—and the reflection on that. “Identity crisis” really is not, it’s not histrionic to describe the problem that you’re seeking to solve in that way.

So, Kat, I wanna make a little bit of space to talk about some of the solutions here, because you mentioned that you’ve learned over the years and years of doing this work that we’re never gonna be able to address the problem of 26 million people without ID one person at a time. That’s true of so many structural problems that we talk about on this podcast. You referenced very, very briefly up top as you were talking a little bit about kind of how you come to this work and some of the work that your organizations have done, that there is legislation at the state level and legislation at the federal level that you’ve been part of helping to craft to try to solve this problem at a systemic level. What are the solutions? Would you talk a little bit more about that legislation? And what are you hoping comes from this book in addition to awareness about the problem when it comes to actually solving that problem?

CALVIN: Yes. So, I’ll talk sort of top down. We have a bill in the House right now. It’s H.R. 4852. They change the number every session. And I gotta tell ya, Congress, it’s confusing, and I don’t love it. That’s not my least favorite thing that you do in Congress, but it’s up there. But anyways, it’s the IDs for an Inclusive Democracy Act. And essentially what it would do is it would create a free and optional ID for all Americans. I think we’ve got it at like 14 and up, so well over 26 million American adults.

And my favorite thing about it, besides the fact that it would put us on par with when I say almost every other country in the world, I mean, like, literally almost every country in the world! Everyone has this. My favorite thing is Germans are fascinated by what I do for a living because they don’t understand it at all. They don’t understand voter registration because they’re like, “Your government just doesn’t register you?” It’s like, “No, this is America.” And they don’t understand people not having an ID. And everyone I talk to in any other country, I have to explain what I do very slowly, and they don’t get it. This is not a problem anywhere else. This is one of our very, very many distinctly American problems.

And so, it would create a free and optional ID. But crucially, it would not be distributed by the DMV. It would be distributed by post offices, which, first of all, already do passports, which are more complicated. So, it’s a thing they can do. But also, there are hundreds of thousands more post offices in this country than DMVs, right? We work in West Virginia where there are very few DMVs. And so, we sometimes have to drive people a couple of hours in order to get to the DMV. There’s a post office everywhere. There’s a post office in every town. There’s more than one in most towns. And so, when we’re looking at especially access for folks who are in rural areas, which is most of America, or just folks who do not wanna stand in the 22-hour DMV line, and we don’t wanna make the DMV line any longer, we really purposefully took this out of that process and put it into post offices, which are also federal, which helps.

But the other place they will be distributed is the greatest place on earth: libraries. We all love a library. My grandmother was a librarian. The best people in the world. Librarians and astronauts, they’re all we need. And also, crucially, people, most people don’t know, librarians are already—or libraries—are central locations for folks to seek all types of assistance. We actually have libraries now that are starting to hire social workers because they have so many people coming in who they are helping with IDs and with applying for benefits and with figuring out how to apply for jobs. There are a lot of unhoused people in libraries because they don’t have access to the Internet. One percent of our clients have regular access to a phone, so they don’t have Internet access. And so, they go to the library.

And I’ve spoken to librarians all over the country. It has been my very favorite thing about this bill. And they’re all so thrilled because they’re all like, “Either we’re trying to help get IDs, or we’ve been trying to help and we don’t know how to, or we don’t have the funds to be able to really do anything,” or, “oh, we’ve had this pilot program.” They care so much, and they wanna help so much, and folks who need help are already going to them. And so, libraries are the other central place where these would be distributed. And the goal is give everyone a free ID, but also because it’s federal, it would be valid in every state, right?

So, one of the big problems we have is when you, so, you used to, pre-9/11, be able to take an ID from one state to another state’s DMV, and they just give you an ID. No more. Now you need all of the original documents every time you move to a new state. So, we have a ton of people who move to a new state and are either unhoused or low income or just starting out or whatever, and they don’t have their birth certificates and all these things. And then they can’t get a new ID, and all of their problems start all over again. With a federal ID, that wouldn’t matter. You could take it anywhere. It would be usable on an I-9. You could use it for jobs, you could use it for housing, you could use it for benefits, for all of these things. So, it would change everything. I mean, it would, with the swipe of a pen and then a long bureaucratic process to create the ID and whatever else and train the postal workers and the libraries, etc., but once it’s done, every single American will have an ID. And it’ll lead to my goal of, in ten years, people looking around us laughing and being like, “Oh my God. What? There was a time when people didn’t have IDs?” Like, the next generation that refuses to Google information will never believe that there was a time when Eminem had to do a hearing in Congress or when people didn’t have IDs.

So, that’s the IDs for an Inclusive Democracy Act. You can go to to find more information and importantly, to find out call scripts, emails, phone numbers, etc. so that you can reach out to your members of Congress and ask them to support it. And so, we’re right now working on getting that support through the House. It has to go through committee. And we’re working on getting a Senate bill. It’s a long journey, but it’s one that we’re on for good.

While we’re working on that, we’re also working on state legislation. So, we’ve got a couple of bills in the California state legislature right now. One that would make IDs free for all veterans. ‘Cause I don’t care if a veteran is a trillionaire. If he’s a veteran, he should be able to get his ID for free. But also, most veterans are not trillionaires. Most veterans are just trying to make ends meet, and they’re frickin’ veterans. I grew up on Army bases. Everyone in my family is a veteran, so this is personally infuriating, but it’s also politically infuriating because the one group of people— Like, we don’t have two parties who can agree that six-year-olds should have food and not work in factories, but every party pretends to care about veterans and they don’t. And if we can’t even get political parties to agree that veterans should be able to have a state ID, then how are we ever going to convince them that foster kids should or that poor people should or just people, right? And so, it is both, I think, morally imperative because they’re vets, but also because it is the first way for us to convince politicians of why this matters. And so, we are working in California, and we’re working now with legislators in other states on putting together and introducing bills for free IDs for veterans in every state.

We also have another one in California. So, California is great. It’s one of the few states that does give free IDs to the unhoused. It’s a whole process. I’m not gonna say it’s perfect, but we have it, and I appreciate it. But we don’t give free driver’s licenses, which are $41 now. They went up $10 this year, which is something I know ‘cause I’m at the DMV every day. They’re really expensive, and we don’t give people free driver’s licenses. And this is America. If you wanna get to your job, you probably have to drive.

But also, so, the bill would create free driver’s license for the unhoused, but also free vital records for folks who are low income. So, if you’re unhoused, same thing, it’s a whole process, but you can get free birth certificates in California, but not if you’re just low income. But they’re $30 dollars each. And I’ve had, I had a single mom with five kids living in Section 8 housing, and she needed birth certificates for all of them because they all had to go to school. She took $30 for each child’s birth certificate plus her own, right? There’s just, it’s so expensive. And so, one of the things that we are trying to really convince politicians of is that IDs aren’t just about helping folks who are unhoused, but also preventing homelessness. In L.A., we have something like 230 people who become unhoused every single day. And so much of that, because I see these people, ‘cause I’m one of the first people they find to get an ID, and they’re like, “I don’t have a birth certificate. I don’t have an ID. I can’t get a job,” right? Or again, the second you become unhoused, you lose things. And so, if we can have processes for people to get what they need so that they can get jobs, so that they can stay housed, you know, there’s a big issue because you have to have an ID to get Section 8 housing, right? So, I have tons of people who finally get their vouchers after years of waiting, but they can’t actually be placed ‘cause they don’t have housing. I’m sure you saw that, too, Vallas.

But what also happens is you’ll have one person who has their ID, who’s living in the Section 8 housing, but then you’ll have a bunch of people just living with them because they need housing and they’re family or they’re friends or whatever. But they can’t get jobs because they don’t have ID. And so, then you have one person who’s sort of bearing that burden. And so, the more that we can do to make sure that everyone has access to it and again, their own birth certificate, right? So, the fact that it’s this expensive or this hard is ridiculous. And so, we’re trying to also increase access to those documents. We’re working with local jurisdictions on things like increasing the types of residency documents that are accepted. So, you have states like California and Florida that you can use a lot of different things, and Wisconsin, which allows like three documents. And so, trying to go to these jurisdictions and say, hey, again, it’s not statutory for most states, so you can just make a decision, like, you know what? Yeah, actually let’s add three or four different documents so it makes it easier for people to be able to have those documents to get IDs.

And we’re trying to look at all levels of that. While we’re working on this congressional bill, we’re also looking at what are all these issues. You know, we just had an actual tropical storm in L.A. because climate change. The streets flooded. We had three months of rain in L.A. where the streets flooded. We’ve got 75,000 people sleeping on the streets. We had tons of people coming to us afterwards because their documents got washed away. And so, we’re working with the City on document storage for unhoused folks so that, you know. Or they just, the number of cops who sweep documents, or they get stolen, or they get lost, right? So, can they have a place to store? So, we’re trying to find policy solutions at all levels while also just trying to create a policy that would just solve so many of these problems in one swipe.

VALLAS: And we’ll have information about all the different elements of state level and federal level legislation in our show notes so folks who wanna learn more and wanna get involved can. Kat, I wanna ask one last question about the issues before we get into who is Kat Calvin?

CALVIN: [laughs]

VALLAS: And we’ll have a lightning round around that because that’s part of what I’m very excited about. But you’ve talked extensively, and we’ve, I think really covered in a lot of different ways how this is an economic justice issue, how this is a property issue. But I also wanna just come back around to, as the name of one of the organizations you’ve started, Spread the Vote, would make clear and as you talked about just a little bit in setting up the problem that you’ve been working tirelessly to solve, this is a democracy issue as well. And you pretty much need ID to be able to vote. I’m curious, if we’re talking about 26 million people who don’t have IDs, what difference could it make in a presidential election if all of those people who don’t currently have ID actually were able to have ID? I assume that’s something that you’ve looked at and thought about. And I’m not gonna get into which party, in my personal opinion, maybe people should vote for in November. But assuming that everyone believes that everyone should have access to the ballot box, talk about this a little bit as a democracy issue.

CALVIN: Yeah, I mean, look, when 26 million adults can’t vote, like, not even don’t want to vote but can’t vote, it makes a huge issue. Over a 10th of your population shouldn’t be blocked from the ballot box, you know? One of the things that we see in every election is that the number of people who are registered far outnumber the number of people who actually vote on either side, right? There’s always someone voted for X, someone voted for Y, but then the percentage of people who were registered and didn’t vote is bigger than both of those. And a lot of that is because folks don’t have IDs, right? So, in Wisconsin, 200-something-thousand people are registered but don’t have ID. In Virginia it’s 225,000. There was a state report on the Georgia Secretary of State site that said 675,000, and then they took that away [laughs] when I started talking about it, right?

But we know that in every state hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people are registered to vote, but they don’t have the ID to vote, which means those are people who want to vote, right? They went through the, it’s not a difficult process, but they went through the process of registering but then didn’t have the thing they needed to vote. So, we’re not even talking necessarily about people who don’t care about voting, which I gotta tell you, I talk to people every day at every level and everything.

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cares. There’s a lot of misinformation. There’s a lot of confusion. There are a lot of reasons that people don’t vote, but there’s not a single person who thinks that, they may think their individual vote doesn’t matter for whatever reason, but who doesn’t think that voting as a whole isn’t a big deal. Everybody understands how our democracy works, but we have people who have actually signed up to vote and then find out they can’t.

And we had people, the number of people who call us on Election Day who don’t have an ID and are like, “Oh, I need an ID to vote today,” like, I am sorry. I could help you for next time, but it is, polls close in two hours. We, in 2018, were very lucky because we had some last-minute funding come in, and we were like, great, we’re gonna get people on the ground going through lines at the DMV to make sure everyone has an ID. And we actually found people who were in line and didn’t have the ID they needed and who we were able to take to the DMV, get their ID, and bring them back. And that happened a few times because they were folks who their ID was sort of expired or whatever, or they had had one and lost it. So, they didn’t need all of their other documents, and we were able to take them and do that. But that’s one of the, we have people who are in line to vote and get rejected ‘cause they don’t have the ID they need. And so, we have to A, recognize these are people who want to vote. Because I get so much pushback about that. And so, first of all, and if someone doesn’t wanna vote, that means you need to sit down and have a conversation with them. Like, it’s not, don’t write them off.

But regardless of party, I think right now, people are finally seeing what has always been true about America, or at least what has been true for a very long time, which is that we are divided by socioeconomic status much more than by race or anything else, right? We have class divisions. I remember being very young and living in England and then coming back and be like, oh! We have a class system too. And being able to see it in a different way. And so, when people are voting on the issues, they are usually voting by class, right? Because that’s how things, there are few if any issues that only affect people of one particular race, right? There really isn’t anything. It’s economics, right? It’s healthcare or it’s access to jobs or it’s climate change, which is going to impact some of us more than others, or public health, right? We all had to quarantine except that there were hundreds of thousands of people who couldn’t stay inside and play Animal Crossing and wash their hands every five minutes because they live outside in tents, right? And so, we’re all voting by socioeconomics. And so, when we’re thinking about the issues that we care about right now, we probably need more people who are vulnerable voting.

Voting right now in America, turnout is directly proportional to socioeconomic status, right? Ninety-nine percent of the top 1 percent vote, and then it goes down from there. And we can predict, based on what your income status is, whether or not you’re going to vote. And we need to change that proportion. And the way to do that, there are 26 million adults who don’t have ID. None of them are billionaires, [laughing] right?! And so, if we want to change who is voting because we want people to vote for better access to healthcare and for more equitable taxes and for all of the things we care about, we need to make sure that we’re doing as much as we can to lift those folks up. And that’s why we work so hard.

We have really high voter turnout rates because we spend a lot of time working on it because it is really, really hard to vote if you are poor in this country on purpose. It takes a lot of work. You can’t just go somewhere in October, right? It’s so hard, and it’s expensive, but you have to do it because we’re living in a country that is, that every single demographic except the white male landed gentry have had to fight to be able to vote. And right now, the people who are fighting to be able to vote are poor. And so, by giving folks IDs, it is the first step of the process. It is by no means the last. It’s why it’s not the only thing we do.

You can register people to vote. That does nothing to guarantee that they will. It is, that is the smallest step, right? That’s buying running shoes, but then never actually getting out on the streets and training for your marathon, right? It takes a lot of different steps to do it. But the only way that things are going to change in this country is if we get the most vulnerable people to the polls. Because right now everything is skewed for the top, the top 1 percent. And we’re not gonna change it until the bottom 1 percent finally votes.

VALLAS: Just amen. And also, just so appreciate you contextualizing that because so much attention is paid to voter registration, right? And that’s all kind of things people are like, “Oh, that’s how I can make a difference. I can get involved in my community in a way that’s gonna serve democracy and make a difference in November by registering folks to vote.” And yes, that’s really important. And I love the way that you just contextualized the rest of what needs to happen, right, including this ID piece.

So, I wanna spend the last ten minutes or so that I have with you doing something of a lightning round, a little bit about you as an accidental activist. And so, I’m gonna ask you to make these fairly quick answers so we can get through a few of them and do a little bit of this kind of in a lightning round fashion. So, one of the questions that I love to ask folks and which I’m gonna throw your way as we kick off this lightning round is what is your personal mission statement, and do you have one? How would you frame it?

CALVIN: Yeah. I mean, my personal mission is to ensure that every single American has an ID.

VALLAS: I’ll take that answer.

CALVIN: [chuckles]

VALLAS: It tracks with the rest of this conversation. Beautiful. Next question. If you are a superhero—and I really do believe that every person that I have on this podcast is some form of superhero who works with law and policy and other things—what do you consider to be your superpowers?

CALVIN: I am very good at identifying a problem, coming up with a solution, and then bringing people together to implement the solution.

VALLAS: Love that. And knowing you, that also completely, completely tracks.

CALVIN: [laughs]

VALLAS: A question I’m gonna throw your way that is very connected to a series we did earlier this year about self-care as political warfare, and I made a commitment I was gonna bring this in part or in whole into every episode that I do from then on, how does self-care show up for you? And do you have one or two tips that you would share with others in terms of how you take care of yourself so that you can continue to show up for this work?

CALVIN: I love this question because I’m single, and I don’t have kids, so everything I do is self-care. [laughs] So, I’ve got nothing but time. I think those things that for perhaps this audience that might be useful is one, I take a lot of vacations. I try to take usually two vacations a year. This year I’m going on a book tour, so that’ll be my fall vacation. But I really believe in taking off. We have unlimited leave at work, and I am constantly threatening my staff with like, “Stop working, even if you just spend a week on the couch! You have to stop.” We have a lot of mandatory vacations because I think that it’s not working. My mother used to always give us mental health days from school and just be like, “You’re not going to school today. It’s a mental health day.” And it was great. And my aunt, she would take, she was a teacher, and every year she would take her birthday off, and every time there was a new Batman movie. And I really learned from them as a kid it’s okay to not work. Like, chill out. And it makes such a huge difference. And so, I take a lot of vacations. I take a lot of breaks. I generally don’t look at my email on at least Saturdays and Sundays, depending on sort of what’s going on or whatever. But I really try to take a lot of breaks.

I have a lot of hobbies that I really love and really love getting into. The great thing about being in L.A. is that it’s a really outdoorsy city, and I am a person who loves to hike, like most residents. So, I’m always hiking. I live by the beach. But also, it is easier for me because, kind of like, feed the dog, but otherwise, I’m just taking every day as self-care [laughing] when it’s just you!

VALLAS: I love that answer. And also, just the emphasis on vacations. I mean, that is, it’s something that has been so challenging for me. I know it’s challenging for a lot of other people, especially if you love your work, if you feel like there’s always more work than we have space to do. So, I appreciate you sharing that as one of the tips. And also, just props to your mom for teaching you mental health days when you were in school, and also, for taking off not just her birthday, but also the release of Batman movies?! That was, I love your mom!

CALVIN: That was my Aunt Lynne. She’s a

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She’s also the one who taught me all about X-Men. One thing I’ll say, the thing I tell my staff, ‘cause it’s hard, right? ‘Cause we’re on the ground every day working with unhoused folks. And we know that there are these people who desperately need IDs today, and it’s hard to take a break. But what I always tell them is, “Look, you can work yourself to death until you’re burnt out in two years and then you never help anyone again. Or you could take two weeks off a year and then be able to keep help-, and like not work weekends and take breaks, and then you’re able to help people for the next 15 years. But it’s up to you because at some point your body’s gonna tell you to stop. And so, stop a couple times a year or stop forever.”

VALLAS: That is indeed how it works. That is how it worked for me. Burnout is real.


VALLAS: So, yes. And thank you for bringing that in. I’m gonna ask a couple more lightning round questions. One of my favorite to ask of folks on this show is if you had to pick one—and I know it’s sort of unfair to ask you to pick only one—but what is the most toxic limiting belief that we as a collective need to release and replace if we’re seeking to build an economy where everyone is truly free?

CALVIN: If one more liberal tells me that we need to get conservative voters on our side because we don’t have enough liberals who don’t vote, I will literal-, I will, I will hurt somebody physically. We have, there’s so many people who believe in equality and frickin’ science and whatever else who we haven’t gotten to vote. There’s 26 million of them that I’m working with every day. We don’t have to continue to compromise morals and ethics to try to get this mythical person because we don’t think that there are enough people who will vote. And I know that’s very partisan, but I don’t care because it is a thing that I’m constantly being told by people: “Well, we don’t wanna try to get homeless people to vote. We need to really try to get, like, middle Midwestern white people who voted for Trump.” It’s like, no! We don’t. Like, we need to, there are people who we keep ignoring.

It’s so hard for us to get politicians to come to homeless shelters, right? Or for people to work with former foster youth or whatever. There’s so many vulnerable populations who matter and their opinions matter and they have opinions and they can’t vote and they should be able to vote. And we should focus on them more than this mythical person who we think, well, if we just compromise a little more and give away a little bit more of what we believe, maybe we’ll get them on our side. And it’s because there are people who we see as valuable and people who we see as not. But too bad. Change it. That, oh, yeah, you got me all fired up! [laughs]

VALLAS: That is the goal of a lightning round. That is the goal. But also, yeah, I mean and I, you know, you brought up veterans before, right? I mean that should—


VALLAS: No matter what your political views, I think hopefully everyone should agree that veterans should be able to have ID and should be able to vote, right?

CALVIN: Right.

VALLAS: So, I really appreciate the way that I think you’ve situated this larger point about I mean, 26 million people, right?! That’s also just, it’s a wild number when you think about how many people could vote who can’t presently. All right. Continue with the lightning round. Stay on your soapbox. Don’t leave the soapbox just yet.

CALVIN: [chuckles]

VALLAS: What is your walk-up song or your hype song? I know you have one.

CALVIN: Oh, actually okay. No, it’s this great song, but I can’t remember who sings it, but it’s on my Spotify liked songs, so I’m pulling it up right this second. It’s called Victorious. And it is by…. Oh, my God. Where are you? Hold on. It’s coming. It’s coming. Just wait. It’s worth it. Ah! Wolfmother! Which, first of all, incredible name, Wolfmother. And it’s like she is victorious. It’s this great, badass song. I love running to it. I would totally play it. It’s a very, like, playing you off to Valhalla type of song. It’s the best.

VALLAS: Amazing. All right, we’re gonna put that in the playlist ‘cause Kings Floyd, one of our fabulous producers, is making a playlist of all of the answers to that question for this season. So, I’m very excited about this one. That is an excellent choice for you.

And we’re gonna run out of time, so I’m gonna give you the chance to close out by plugging where folks can find your book and anything else that you wanna share in terms of what’s coming up. I know you’re about to embark upon a fancy book tour.

CALVIN: I am. It’s kind of fancy. Well, thanks for having me. This was a blast, as I knew it would be. My book, American Identity in Crisis by Kat Calvin is available for preorder everywhere. You can go to for the links. But indie books, Barnes & Noble, Amazon. You know, here’s the thing. If you insist on giving us your money, at least leave a review so you’re doing the world some good at the same time. But it’s available everywhere. It’ll also be available in bookstores.

I am going on a very fancy book tour. At I have the dates as we’re adding, but I’m guessing a lot of listeners are probably in D.C. I’ll be at Politics and Prose with Rep. Kasten, who is the wonderful sponsor of our bill, on September 21st. I’ll be at Housing Works in New York with City Councilwoman Shahana Hanif on September 18th. I’ll be on Morning Joe on the 19th, which will be, it’ll be so early for this little West-coaster that I will probably sound like an idiot, but I’ll do my best. I’ll be at Diesel Bookstore in L.A. with Board of Supervisor Lindsey Horvath on the 27th and then different places around the country. So, please, please, please, please come out to my little fabulous book tour. I’ll have stickers! [cheery laugh] They’re pink!

VALLAS: We’ll have links to all of this in show notes so folks can come stalk you and find you at your events. Kat Calvin is the founder of Spread the Vote, Project ID, the Project ID Action Plan. She’s the author of American Identity in Crisis: Notes from an Accidental Activist. Go check her out and subscribe to her newsletter, Hot Takes and Applesauce. She’s very funny as you can tell. Kat, thank you so much for doing this. Congratulations again on your book. And I’m super excited the next time that I have you on Off-Kilter to talk about how Tarot shows up in your life as a—

CALVIN: Oooh! Very interesting.

VALLAS: —whole other conversation we can have about all of that stuff, too. But we’re gonna have to leave it there today. [theme music returns] So, thank you, thank you, thank you. And this was so much fun for me.

CALVIN: Thank you!

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.