Defenders of the Vote

(AP Photo/Michael Perez)

Joe Michetti holds a sign to demonstrate the opposition of Pennsylvania's new voter-identification law during the NAACP voter-ID rally, Thursday, September 13, 2012, in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania's Supreme Court justices are scheduled to hear arguments over whether a new law requiring each voter to show valid photo identification poses an unnecessary threat to the right to vote.

You know you’re in a fledgling campaign office the moment you step off the street and into one of the plainest buildings in Germantown, a mostly black Philadelphia neighborhood that contains several Colonial landmarks. Along garish, peach-colored walls are maps of every inch of the city: council districts, wards, divisions, recreation centers. Mismatched tables sit empty, waiting for soon-to-be-installed phones that volunteers will use to call number after number. In one corner of the back office, there’s even a double megaphone ready to perch atop a van and spread the message.

Rather than touting a candidate, though, this campaign’s volunteers will be spreading news that they hate: Hundreds of thousands of registered voters in Philadelphia, and hundreds of thousands more across the state, are in danger of losing their voice in the November election. Welcome to the world of the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, made up of 140 organizations—churches, labor unions, civic groups—which began training volunteers in July. The group’s job is to let voters know that, thanks to a law passed in March, they will have to carry a government-issued picture ID to the polls to ensure that their vote counts. The coalition will also help voters who lack the proper ID to acquire one—a process that is, in some cases, time-consuming and complicated.

Most of the controversy over the law has focused on its political impact: Will it give Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney an edge in Pennsylvania, since the law overwhelmingly affects African Americans, students, the elderly, and low-income voters who mostly vote Democratic?

But the coalition, which prominently plasters “Non-Partisan” on banners all over the office, is concerned with something larger. “The greatest fear would be that people are disenfranchised, become discouraged, throw their hands up and say, ‘There’s nothing I can do about this, voting doesn’t matter anyways,’” says lead organizer Joe Certaine, a prominent voting-rights activist and the former managing director of Philadelphia, the city’s second-most powerful office.

“Because then, these people will be elected by fewer and fewer constituents. They will represent a much narrower constituency,” he adds. “And a few people in Pennsylvania will determine what happens to all of Pennsylvania.”

In March, the state became one of 11 whose Republican majorities have passed voter-ID laws so restrictive they’ve raised worries about disenfranchisement. Pennsylvania, which makes the IDs unusually difficult to attain, could end up disqualifying more voters in November than any other. The law wasn’t promoted that way, of course. Its Republican proponents argued, as they have in other states, that this was a safeguard against voter fraud—“a common—sense safeguard that will only disenfranchise integrity-deficient individuals seeking to perpetuate fraud and corruption at the polls,” wrote Republican state Representative Daryl Metcalfe, the author of the measure, in a June op-ed piece. Metcalfe declined repeated requests to comment for this story. But on Fox News, he defended the law by telling Greta Van Susteren, “Every American citizen deserves to have their vote protected from the forces of corruption.”

During the legislative debate, state officials promised that only 1 percent of registered voters lacked the necessary ID—no big deal, really. Court documents later revealed that the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office had reached that tally hastily, taking just one day to come up with an estimate. In July, the secretary’s office revealed numbers that were dramatically higher: More than 750,000, or 9 percent of registered voters, have no photo IDs from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), the most common and accepted form of necessary identification. While nobody knows the actual number, independent studies have yielded estimates of more than a million voters.

In June, four voting-rights groups filed suit against the state on behalf of ten plaintiffs, several of whom lacked the documents needed to acquire the necessary ID. The suit argues that the law violates the Pennsylvania Constitution’s guarantee of “free and fair elections.” The state does not assert that voter fraud is a legitimate problem but simply that it has the right to regulate elections. In mid-August, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, ruled in favor of the state. The plaintiffs vowed to take the case to the state supreme court, where they hope for an expedited ruling that would block the law’s implementation. That case begins Thursday. In July, the U.S. Department of Justice also announced an investigation into possible violations of the Voting Rights Act. Time is short, but the department could sue Pennsylvania in federal court on the grounds that the law is discriminatory.

Judge Simpson ruled in favor of the state in part because of its plans to educate voters and make IDs available. But at the time of the ruling, Pennsylvania had done little to inform voters about what the law means. When Georgia passed the nation’s first strict voter-ID measure six years ago, federal courts granted an injunction and forced the state to conduct a significant voter-education campaign before the law went into effect; ads ran on major radio stations, a website was created, and brochures were sent to all voters. Pennsylvania officials have similar plans, but there’s little time for them to have an impact. Voters will get postcards about the new law, for example, but the notices won’t be mailed out until late September. Under pressure from voting-rights advocates, Pennsylvania has taken small steps to make the IDs easier for some to acquire—offering free certified birth records, for instance, which some voters will need in order to get the proper ID. “We believe that any registered legal voters who want an ID can get one,” says Ron Ruman, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which is responsible for elections.

The work of preventing mass disenfranchisement has fallen largely to the Voter ID Coalition. “By the time we’re done with this, everybody will know about voter ID,” Certaine vows. His confidence belies a seemingly impossible task. In Philadelphia alone, 180,000 registered voters lack a PennDOT ID. At least another 150,000 have IDs that will, by November 6, be more than a year past their expiration dates—and therefore unacceptable. It all adds up to more than 30 percent of the city’s voters.

Certaine refuses to be daunted by the task or by the complicated political alliances and rivalries he must navigate to keep the coalition together. “People don’t fuck with me,” he says, sitting in the coalition’s cramped back office. “In reality, I can get this shit done whether they’re helping me or not. I just got to dig harder.” Certaine, a heavyset man of 65 with a neatly trimmed beard and wire-rimmed glasses, knows city politics backward and forward. Give him a Philly address, and odds are he knows the residents’ polling site. He also knows whom to ask for what favors. These days, he’s asking a lot: Almost everything, from the office furniture to legal advice for those needing an ID, is donated.

In case anyone believed that Republicans were moved to pass the law to protect the “sanctity of elections,” as they insist, Pennsylvania’s House majority leader, Mike Turzai, let the truth be known in June. Turzai boasted to a GOP state gathering that voter ID would “allow Governor Romney to win the state.” Pennsylvania hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential race since 1988, and President Barack Obama has held a steady lead in the polls all year. But it is Obama’s likely voters who disproportionately lack a state-issued ID. Without Pennsylvania, a Democratic victory would be virtually impossible.

On a late Wednesday afternoon in early August, a steady stream of community leaders and activists, racially diverse and mostly middle-aged, file into the Voter ID Coalition’s office for a training session on the law. The 100 folding chairs are filled by the appointed 5:30 start time; a few dozen attendees end up standing. Certaine introduces Ellen Kaplan, who will lead the session. As policy director of the Committee of Seventy, a long-established good-government group that is spearheading the coalition and providing much of its funding, she knows the ins and outs of the law. She’s already trained hundreds of volunteers—who, in turn, go back to their neighborhoods and communities and lead their own education and training sessions.

Kaplan, who gives off a wonky-but-friendly vibe, begins by acknowledging that the volunteers have probably heard about the legal fight against voter ID. She warns them not to depend on the courts. “We don’t want any voter to wait until the litigation is decided,” she says. “We don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”

Kaplan explains the myriad complications in Pennsylvania’s law. In addition to driver’s licenses, voters can use passports, military IDs, government employee IDs, and identification cards from Pennsylvania colleges and state-run care facilities like nursing homes. But there’s a catch: The IDs must have expiration dates, which many student, veteran, and care-facility cards lack. Driver’s licenses are valid if they’re expired—but only for less than a year. “I wish that I could tell you why it was limited,” Kaplan says of the number of acceptable IDs. “Believe me, I don’t know.”

Most without a valid ID can be grouped into two categories, Kaplan explains: those with a simple path and those with a complicated one. For voters with expired or lost driver’s licenses, it’s straightforward: Just head to a PennDOT office and renew, because you’re already in the system. “Go and expect that you’re going to have to wait,” Kaplan warns. “We are trying to urge PennDOT to create special lines just for people who need the voter ID.” So far, however, that hasn’t happened.

Philadelphia is not a city where practically everybody has, or needs, a license to drive; in its densely populated neighborhoods, public transportation rules. Those who’ve never had a state-issued license have to provide four documents: a birth certificate, a Social Security card, and two proofs of residency like a lease or utility bill—more than most states require. If any of the names on those documents don’t match—for instance, if a woman got married and took her husband’s name—the voter must also provide so-called linking documents, like a marriage license.

Hands pop up, one after another. What about those who don’t have a birth certificate? Those without a Social Security card? By the end of August, Kaplan explains, the state says voters who’ve tried and failed to get a state-issued ID will be able to apply for a special “card of last resort” if they can’t attain those documents. But many of the details are still being worked out, and Kaplan cautions the volunteers not to mention the card until it’s available. “I would not count on it,” she says. “Our advice is don’t have voters wait.” (Update: The card has since become available, though those trying to get it still face significant burdens.) Another question: What about Pennsylvanians born in Puerto Rico? This population faces particular challenges. Because some people were caught using fake Puerto Rican birth certificates to get into the U.S., the territory invalidated all birth certificates issued before 2010. That means that even if you have one, you’ll need to buy a new one—and with 366,000 Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania, the state’s largest segment of Latinos, that’s no small problem.

Voters born in Pennsylvania have the easiest time, as long as they have a Social Security card, because the state is offering to certify birth records for those who don’t have a certificate. Sounds like good news, Kaplan tells the volunteers, except that this requires two different trips to a PennDOT office: one to request the certified record and another to get the ID. That’s a heavy burden for the elderly, who are the most likely—along with Puerto Ricans—to lack birth certificates. Making matters far worse, Philadelphia has only five driver’s license centers, one for every 200,000 voters. Still, that’s better than the handful of counties around the state that don’t have one at all.

A woman raises her hand, looking incredulous. “What you’re saying is that in the entire city there’s only five license centers, and we’re talking about thousands of people who are going to need to get their voter ID by going to these places? I don’t know how that’s going to happen. Are these lines going to be open 24 hours a day?”

The answer is no—the state is not extending PennDOT’s business hours. (UPDATE: After significant pressure from the coalition, PennDOT just announced it would offer narrowly expanded hours in Philadelphia, one night a week.) Voting-rights advocates had asked the state to provide mobile units to reach far-flung parts of the city, but the state has refused. Still, Kaplan doesn’t want to discourage the volunteers, many of whom are already looking overwhelmed, if not downright angry, at the roadblocks the state has erected to prevent citizens from voting. So Kaplan, almost apologetically, simply says, “Nobody at the coalition wrote the law.”


No matter how many Pennsylvanians the Voter ID Coalition manages to help, Election Day 2012 could still be a nightmare unless the courts halt the law’s implementation. Registered voters who show up without the requisite identification won’t be allowed to cast a normal ballot by machine. They’ll get a provisional paper ballot and have six days to show their ID, either by e-mail, fax, or in person, to the City Board of Elections. Deputy City Commissioner Jorge Santana, whose office administers elections in Philadelphia, doesn’t know how it’s going to work—or how much it might slow down the voting process, discouraging even more people from voting because of long lines. “Now you have five, six, seven, eight people filling out provisional ballots,” he says. “Where are the tables for these people? Do you have them on the floor? Where are they filling this out? There’s no space to do this.” (UPDATE: Santana has since left the job)

The problems won’t just be about long lines and space. The state is providing no additional funding to train poll workers about the implications of the new law for the voters they’ll be dealing with. “There’s going to be fights,” says Santana. “There’s going to be suspicion.” When he testified in court, Santana predicted “chaos” at the polls come November.

At the coalition office, Muriel Silva, from her daily perch at the front desk, has already seen plenty of consternation. A retired woman who looks much younger than her 65 years, Silva says she’s already fielding 15 calls a day, mostly from people with concerns or questions about what they need to do to vote. Silva says she knew little about the law until she heard Certaine discussing it on the radio. She was stunned to learn the details, and immediately determined to do all she could to prevent people from being disenfranchised. “I’ve tried not to be a preachy-preach person,” she says. “But I will tell you, I’m telling a story, even when I’m not here. And that story is the importance of voting. If we don’t take some kind of action, if we don’t follow the rules, then we’re going to be left out.”

It’s personal for Silva, as it is for so many: Some of her family came to Philadelphia from the South, leaving Jim Crow laws behind. Or so they thought. Silva never imagined she’d have to counsel others, many of them poor and black, on how to keep their right to vote in Pennsylvania. “I grew up in the ’60s,” she says. “I remember Little Rock. I remember Medgar Evers. I can tell you where I was when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I can still picture bodies hanging from the tree.

“As an African American, knowing what my forefathers, foresisters, what it took to vote—to learn that there’s something that could impede that, that’s outrageous to me.”

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