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Asheville Woman Denied Voter ID Speaks Out

On Friday, 86-year-old Asheville resident Reba Miller Bowser got a visit at her apartment from the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles.  They were there to fix what they admit was a mistake: turning her down for a voter ID.  A day later, her son Ed Bowser welcome me into their home for a chat with Reba and himself.  Reba seemed in an upbeat, jocular mood.

Reba Miller Bowser: "Do I have to watch my language?"

This story began last Monday when Ed drove Reba to the Asheville DMV office on Patton Avenue.  She had with her a number of documents to prove her identity, including her 1929 birth certificate, her social security card and her recently-expired New Hampshire driver's license.  It wasn't enough.  The DMV turned her away.  The question was over a simple 'M.'  As in 'M' for 'Miller,' Bowser's middle name.  Reba was born Reba Witmer Miller and took her husband's surname 'Bowser' when she married him in 1950.  In addition, she took her maiden name to be her middle name, thus: 'Reba M. Bowser' as it says on most of her documents.  The Asheville DMV turned her down because Reba had no way of proving that 'M' stood for Miller.  That might have required her marriage certificate.

Reba: (laughing) "I'm 86 years old so you know how many years ago that was?"

With no way to prove her identity, the Bowsers went home.  But Reba wasn't giving up.

Reba: "Heck no!  I'm a very stubborn person." (laughing)

But it might not have worked out if not for a stroke of good luck.  Reba's daughter-in-law, Amy Lee Knisley, a faculty member at Warren Wilson College, took to Facebook to air her grievances, posting a beaming photo of Reba and Ed with her voter application, explaining how Reba had been denied.  The post went viral, logging over 25,000 shares.  That ultimately got the attention of DMV, which issued an apology and admitted they had made a mistake.  Marge Howell is a DMV spokeswoman:

Marge Howell: "We had some folks who might not have been trained completely in our Asheville office.  We want to be sure that when we have new employees that we train them in a more timely manner."

With the story getting more media attention, DMV decided to pay Reba a visit, which Ed and Reba say went well.  Reba should be able to vote in the March 15 primary.  But though it worked out for Reba, it might not work out for others, as she points out:

Reba:  "I think there's maybe other people in my situation, and they're the ones that need help too."

This incident has shown that a controversial election overhaul law passed by North Carolina's Republican-dominated legislature is not going to be without its bumps.  Though numerous lawsuits are challenging the law in federal court, voter ID will be required for the March primary.  Proponents of it argue it will cut down on voter fraud.  But opponents have argued exactly what happened to Reba Bowser:  that well-intentioned, law-abiding, and often vulnerable citizens will find it much more difficult and sometimes impossible to vote.  Take Reba herself.  In her old age, she doesn't drive.

Reba: "I had gotten moisture in the inner ear and I had vertigo."

So just getting to the DMV would have been difficult if not for her son.  At the DMV, numerous unforeseen problems can come up, like that pesky 'M.'

Reba:  "It's frustrating when you get papers and stuff together and you take it in, and then somebody else looks at it and says 'Oh! This is fine!'" (laughs).  We registered in New Hampshire.  They took a picture and you went in to vote, you voted, and you turned around and went home.The part that upsets me is you're used to doing it in a state.  But then it shouldn't be that much different when you move here.  It's too difficult to get set up to go and vote.  And I've been voting ever since...Eisenhower was the first president when I was able to vote."

The DMV spokeswoman Marge Howell expressed her sympathy.

Howell:  "We are correcting that and we certainly have apologized to Ms. Bowser and her family for making them go out of their way in any way to get her ID card."

Reba's son says DMV was polite and courteous and DID make things right.  But he says this sheds light on the bigger problem with voter ID.

Ed Bowser: "I think if the state is going to require something like a photo ID, they need to make it extremely easy for people of any socioeconomic or racial background to be able to go in and be taken care of.  Just think about, the DMV actually came out here to mom's apartment to do this for her.  They should be willing to do it for ever citizen who has transportation issues or needs counseling on what kind of documentation they need and they should have help in obtaining those documents and getting those forms filled out."

I asked the DMV whether they had the staff required to handle the influx of people getting voter IDs.  Howell says they do.  And she says the broader question of whether voter ID is appropriate isn't up to them.

Howell: "DMV is carrying out its end of the voter ID law.  And so we are doing what we need to to make sure that people obtain their cards when they come in and apply for them."

As for the motivation behind the voter ID law, Reba has her suspicions.

Reba:  "Well I think they're trying to keep certain people from being able to vote."

Despite that, Reba told me she did think voter ID might be necessary.

Reba:  "Yeah, but they need to be handled that people feel they're getting what they signed up for."

Ed sounded even more concerned about the ID law.

Ed:  "It allows for people who have agendas to make decisions by profiling a potential voter, and if it looks like someone they feel doesn't agree with their political views, maybe we turn that person down.  The way I see it now is that the way this current voter ID law is being implemented is that there is more potential for voter fraud now than there was before we required voter IDs.  Not fraud on the part of the voter, but fraud on part of the people that we're entrusting to count our votes and to make sure that everyone who votes gets their vote counted the way they intended it."

As for the upcoming election, Reba hasn't decided yet who she's voting for.

Reba:  "Hillary's probably ok.  But, the guy with the glasses..."  Ed:  "Bernie?"  Reba:  "Bernie, yeah.  I heard some of his speeches and that and I think he makes a lot of sense."

She is clear about one thing.  She won't be voting for Donald Trump.

Reba:  (laughing) "Take him and put him in a rowboat and put him in the ocean."

Failing to get a committed answer from Reba, I turned to her 9-year-old granddaughter Phoebe.

Loeb:  "Which candidate do you like?"

Phoebe:  "Don't ask me.  I don't vote."

Loeb:  (laughing) "She's not having any of it."

For the Bowsers, it's been a whirlwind week, with all the media.  While we spoke, we were interrupted by a knock on the door.

(door knocks)  Reba: "Is that probably Amy?"  Phoebe:  "Maybe not.  What was it?"  Ed:  "Newspaper."  Loeb: "Ah!  Got a newspaper... that you're probably in.  Ah!  There you are."  Reba:  "Oh my God.  Oh dear"  Phoebe: "Let me see! Let me see!"  Ed:  "And you're on the front page.  The story starts on the front page.  'Asheville woman, 86, gets photo ID finally.'  There's your headline."  Reba: "Good!"  Ed: "Good for you."

The Bowsers can enjoy a nice moment in the spotlight now.  But the question going forward: for the people who run into similar problems whose stories don't get picked up in the media, will they end up with such a happy ending?  For WCQS News, I'm Jeremy Loeb.

Additional content -

Full interview with Ed Bowser:

Full interview with Ed Bowser

Broadcast version of interview w/ Ed Bowser:

Broadcast version of interview w/ Ed Bowser

Previous report w/ DMV interview : NC DMV Apologizes to Asheville Woman Denied Voter ID

Interview w/ NC NAACP President Rev. William Barber on voter ID trial

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