Pennsylvania's Other Voter ID Battle

When Pennsylvania Republicans passed the nation's most restrictive voter ID law in March, requiring all voters to show government-issued photo identification, it was less than eight months before the November elections. It was going to be a sprint to train state workers and election workers on the new law, and to inform the public and help those who needed to get new IDs. Fortunately, Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, the state's election chief, had assured everyone during the legislative debate that 99 percent of voters already had a valid ID ready to go. For the other 1 percent, the state would make the new voter IDs free, and would advertise the new law widely to make sure everyone who had lost their eligibility would know what to do. After all, proponents argued, the point of a voter ID law wasn't to prevent folks from voting; it was to guard against voter fraud, even if that hadn't yet become a problem in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. 

Now, three months before Election Day, it’s increasingly clear that the state has done very little to prevent voters from being disenfranchised by the new law. It's also clear that Secretary Aichele was using highly creative math when she said that only 1 percent of voters lacked the necessary ID. According to the state's own study after the law went into effect, more than 750,000 state voters—9 percent—do not have the most common form of acceptable ID. Nearly one in five Philadelphia voters lack the ID. Yet in court proceedings over a lawsuit filed against the state, one election official said that the state expected to issue fewer than 10,000 new IDs as a result of the law. Did the state of Pennsylvania want those 750,000 to vote? It didn't look that way. The state hired a largely Republican company to do its PR campaign, leaving many with doubts about its intentions.

“This law is very poorly written,” says Karen Buck, who heads the Senior Law Center, which is attempting to help elderly Pennsylvanians get their IDs. “The implementation measures have been disastrous and are constantly in flux.”

The rules for getting an ID have changed more than once, creating confusion. Yet officials have done little to make the process easier. When the number of affected voters turned out to be so much higher than anticipated, activists called on the state to increase hours at driver’s license centers or dispatch mobile units to help voters get their identification more easily. The state has done neither. Hundreds of thousands of registered voters—disproportionately Democratic and minority—could be disenfranchised in a battleground state that will help determine the presidential election. 

It’s fallen to citizens and civic groups to do the job the state implied would be so easy. While voting-rights activists hope the courts knock down the law or postpone it until after November 6, many aren’t waiting to see the outcome. Rather than relying on the state, the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, which has more than 140 member organizations, has mounted a campaign to alert voters to the change and prevent massive swaths of citizens from losing their right to vote. Chief among the allied groups is the Committee of Seventy, a long-established good-government group in Philadelphia. The coalition's field operations are headed by Joe Certaine, a former city official in Philadelphia and a well-known community organizer. The effort is strictly non-partisan, and while some of its members are involved in the suit against the law, the coalition works on the assumption that come November, those without IDs won’t be allowed to cast a regular ballot. 

Ellen Kaplan, the committee's policy director, holds training sessions to teach the intricacies of the law to others who then can hold their own events. As evidence mounts that staff at driver's license centers are not prepared and give voters inaccurate information, Kaplan's role is vital to helping people know what they need to do—a job the state is apparently unwilling to do. 

It's a stiff challenge. Spreading the word and reaching out to affected voters is tough, especially without reliable information about who those voters are. The coalition relies on the state's study, which merged voter rolls with ID-information from the state's Department of Transportation, to tell them which areas are most affected. (While the coalition focuses on Philadelphia, which has a disproportionate number of the people without ID, the activists hope to make it a statewide campaign.)  Volunteers will go door-to-door in such neighborhoods, alerting everyone to the change in rules. In the next few weeks, the coalition also plans on calling homes, using phone numbers from the voting rolls. There's even a gigantic megaphone at the field operation headquarters meant to blare out the message from atop a van. Running on a shoestring budget, Certaine, who's in charge of field operations, hopes for a volunteer army and will rely on church vans to provide transportation to driver's license centers. Groups in the coalition, like the Senior Law Center, are also offering clinics for those who need legal help to obtain an ID. 

The range of problems voters face is vast. Many without a valid ID have, at one point or another, had a state-issued ID card or driver’s license that's expired or gotten lost. For those voters, the coalition must simply ensure they know about the law and have a way to get to a driver’s license center. But Philadelphia is a city with many densely populated neighborhoods, where public transportation rules. Those who have never had a state-issued ID must go to a driver’s license center and they must also bring a birth certificate, Social Security card and two proofs of residency. (Hope you keep your files tidy!) If any of the names don’t match—like, say, you got married and changed your name—you must provide so-called “linking documents” like a marriage license.

“What we want to do is separate these people out,” explains Certaine. “Each problem is different.” For every person missing a document or facing a complication—a typo in the birth certificate, for instance—there’s almost always a twisted path. The state has begun offering to certify birth records for those born in the state who do not have their birth certificate, ostensibly good news. But it requires two trips to a state driver’s license center, one to request the certified record and another to get the ID itself. That's a heavy burden for the elderly, who are disproportionately affected by the law. Even if they have a birth certificate, most of those born in Puerto Rico must get a new one since all birth certificates issued before 2010 were invalidated by the Puerto Rican government. That's no small problem given that there are 366,000 Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania, making up half of the state's Latino population. Those without photo-ID and without a Social Security card face a whole different legal process. It goes on and on.

No one in the coalition has any faith in the state's efforts to help get citizens IDs. At a training session, Kaplan warned volunteers not to bank on the state’s latest announcement that starting at the end of August, it would offer an “ID of last resort” to those without documents. “If they say the card’s happening, I hope it happens, but I would not count on it,” she said. “Our advice is don’t have voters wait.”

Instead, through shoeleather and elbow grease, the coalition is doing what you would expect the state to do—pushing hard to spread the word and provide support to voters in the short window left before November 6. “I believe in all power to the people and I believe that the people united will never be defeated,” explains Certaine. “It's just that simple.” 

You may also like