How many times have you heard someone say that is permissible to require photo ID's for voting, because poor people also need photo ID's to apply for welfare? This meme has become conservative conventional wisdom, but is it true?
As far as I can tell, no. It is false. I got tired after having checked a dozen of our largest states, but Ohio, Virginia, and New York serve as typical examples of what I found. Generally, you need to prove you are poor, that you are a resident, and that you are a citizen (in some cases). A wide variety of documents are accepted, many if not most of which are not photo IDs. In the case of unemployment benefits, hardly any documentation was required and you could often do it online. Welfare benefits such as SNAP (food stamps) or Medicaid required relatively extensive documentation and an interview, but there is generally broad latitude for what counts and a waiver process that can bypass any obstacles. Of course, having a photo ID is helpful and can be used to prove either residency (driver's license, state ID) or citizenship (passport), but they are clearly not necessary.
I did find that Republicans in some states such as Illinois are pushing for ID requirements, but haven't found one where they have passed. Other states, such as Massachusetts, appear to be turning SNAP cards into photo IDs, which is a perfectly reasonable idea, especially if these then count as voter ID. Also note that in every state I looked in, voter registration was connected to benefit applications. That's also good policy. But I could not find a single state where photo ID's were required to apply for or receive SNAP, Medicaid, or unemployment.
So here is the easy money part. The next time your crazy Republican uncle brings up the "you need photo ID for welfare" trope, bet him $50 that you don't in your state. Few things are more fun than deservedly separating a fool from his money.
Update: Fair Elections Legal Network has some related information on when you do and do not need photo identification. Basically, you need a photo ID to get Sudafed, and alcohol if you are lucky enough to be young. For everything else, there is a work-around. Basically, many people are confusing "situations where you are asked for a photo ID" and "situations for which a photo ID is necessary". There are many of the former, but few of the latter. If it is important, you can be sure there is alternative solution in place for people without a photo ID.
Update II: I suggest you take a look at Canada's voter ID system. The accept any of the following:
1: A state-issued photo ID
2: Two non-photo forms of identification from a list of several dozen, including things like leases, hunting licenses, library cards, credit cards, etc. At least one must contain your address.
3: Any registered voter may vouch for one other person in their district. The vouched for person cannot subsequently vouch for anyone else.
This seems to be an eminently reasonable compromise to me.
Update III: After looking through the laws of several states, I doubt that lacking a photo ID can prevent you from obtaining alcohol if you are over 21. It is generally legal for someone else who has an ID to buy alcohol on your behalf and give it to you, if you are of age.