Andy vs the DMV

For many people these days, going to the DMV in North Carolina is a high stakes affair. As part of nationwide strategy to roll back the Voting Rights Act and disenfranchise poor and minority voters, North Carolina has all but required state photo IDs for voters, starting with the 2016 elections. My stakes were arguably lower. I have a Minnesota driver’s license, and any state issued ID is valid, at least I think that’s the case. But since I’ve lived here for a year, and since I finally joined the rest of the South in using a car to get around, I thought I should finally trade in my old license for a North Carolina one. What I didn’t expect was that in trying to obtain a new ID, I’d have to surrender my middle name.

I arrived at the DMV bright and early Friday morning. I had taken the day off from work, and had studied the driver’s handbook the night before for a good 20 minutes. I had on my person my Minnesota license, my social security card, and my voter registration card, proof of North Carolina residency. I also had proof of insurance, which the website told me to have with me, even though I can’t understand why someone would need to have an insurance policy just to be licensed to drive. And I had not one, but two paperback books, just in case I was in for a long wait.

The wait was somewhere between short and interminable. But as I approached the clerk that called my ticket number, he looked disapprovingly at my four documents and told me they just wouldn’t do. The names on my documents didn’t match. My driver’s license had my middle name, spelled out fully, and my social security card had no middle name at all.

“Sorry,” he said. “The state of North Carolina requires your name to match.” I was told I would have to come back with another ID, perhaps a birth certificate or passport. He told me that if I left and returned, I wouldn’t have to wait all over again.

Forty five minutes later, I was back. I had ran into my apartment and grabbed both my passport AND my birth certificate. Surely, they would offer proof that I wasn’t a fraudster, some sort of miscreant seeking to impose Sharia law so that I might give everyone abortions. But when I presented these documents — that makes five, six if you count the insurance — he just shook his head. My middle name wasn’t on either the passport or the birth certificate.

After a few minutes of arguing, the guy relented. He gave me an eye exam, took my money, and took my picture. He also politely informed me that by all accounts, I don’t have a middle name. When I signed my signature, the one that would appear on my new license, he implored me to make sure I just signed with a first and last name only. I spent the rest of the day in an existential funk. Who am I if I don’t share the same middle name as Homer Simpson? Or Stephen Gould?

All kidding aside, in truth, I care very little about the fact that my nomigraphic life has been a sham.[1] I’m happy to have gotten the DMV trip out of the way, and the staff was on the whole very nice. Actually, I believe I was supposed to have taken a written test, having come in with an out-of-state license, but I think the clerk let it go since I expressed so much exasperation.

But I can’t help but think about the “what-ifs”: what if I hadn’t had ready access to other forms of ID? Or quick and reliable means of going home and returning to the DMV? What if the difference in the two versions of my names had been greater? And what’s the deal with the insurance requirement anyways? Of course, the new pushes for ID requirements for voting — of which North Carolina is at the vanguard — comes with a host of what-ifs too. For example, what if a worker can’t request the day off so easily as I could?

To be clear, I have even less interest in lamenting the power of the big, bad, impersonal state than I do in singling out the friendly workers at the DMV. Government institutions are not unique in that they apply regimes of governance. The actions of the state of North Carolina, to at once paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates and invoke Michel Foucault, are reflections of “democratic will,” the “majoritarianism” of liberal democracy made intelligible.[2]

Here’s a half-formed thought, if that. Maybe the same forces that require the DMV to triple check my identity, those that make it extremely hard to get around for people that already have it hard, those that seek to disenfranchise swaths of the population in pursuit of non-existent voter fraud, are those same forces that animated Cheney’s one percent doctrine, those that seek to shut down refugee movement in the Middle East and Europe for the fear that just one of those people might be a terrorist, those that intend to shut down welfare and food stamp programs because they are potentially “moral hazards”? It seems that the justifications for all of these ideologies and programs require alienation and othering, which stem from a cultural discourse that is both bigger and more fluid at the “microphysical” level than any state institution. [3]


[1] Yes, I just totally made up that word.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 78-79.

[3] On the micro-physics of power, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 215.