Philadelphia Groups Scramble to Help Residents Get Voter ID

Pennsylvania's voter ID law is already proving to be a burden to local agencies and non-profits.

By Aura Bogado Sep 12, 2012

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday to make a final decision on the state’s voter ID law–and the case has drawn so much attention that a live stream has been established to watch it. But the battle over Philadelphia’s voter ID isn’t just being fought inside a courtroom: grassroots as well as national groups are organizing to get people the identification they need in order to cast a ballot on Election Day. But it’s not easy. These groups have registered voters in the past, but navigating the requirements necessary to obtain ID requires serious resources that may not be readily available, especially in a bad economy.

Our Philadelphia-based community journalist, James Cersonsky, has been spending time at the local department of transportation, with canvassers, and with organizers who conduct registration clinics and trainings. He reports that while people and aren’t waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision to mobilize, they’re finding it hard to do the work of getting eligible voters the ID they need.

Pennsylvania’s two-month warning
Dispatch from James Cersonsky

As the courtroom battle over Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law rages on, voting rights activists are racing against time to undermine the spirit of what they say is a law that will disenfranchise otherwise eligible voters. "We’re trying to make sure that we are empowering as many folks on the streets, as often as we can," says John Jordan, director of civic engagement for the Pennsylvania NAACP. Like many civil rights advocates caught in the voter ID scramble, however, Jordan is only as powerful as his volunteers. "Four years ago we were paying canvassers to do voter registration work," he says. Now, tasked with informing voters about ID requirements in addition registering them, his organization is "pleading and begging" for volunteers in the effort to get IDs in the hands of voters.

Winded from a clinic in Harrisburg the night before, Jordan suits up on a hot Thursday morning for a meeting with 40 senior women at the Bethel Deliverance International Church in Wyncote, a Philadelphia suburb. He tells them that you can be fined up to $1,000 or locked up for 2 years if you lie on the "affirmation form" stating that you don’t have another eligible ID and need the state-issued voter ID. The audience is outraged.

Amanda Kinton, 75, has lived her entire life in Philadelphia and used to be a poll worker. Previously reluctant to volunteer, she and Jordan launch into a lively post-meeting repartee. "I’ll have to make the time," she says. Phone calls, doors–"whatever, however."

Later that day, Jordan, who moved from Birmingham at 17, stands at the Widener Library in North Philly next to a picture of hoses and dogs in Alabama, captioned "How far will they go to deny the vote?" He’s joined by deputy city commissioner Dennis Lee and a host of city workers who, similarly, dart from one presentation to the next. The commissioner’s office has supplied volunteers with voter lists to check name-by-name for ID and is working with ClearChannel to broadcast voting info at Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) stations.

Of the 60 in attendance at the library, nearly half sport orange t-shirts from the Stop and Surrender Recovery Education Center. "People don’t think we want better because of the things that go on," says Earl, 38, a recovering addict. For his teammates, he says, voting is as fundamental as going to work.

With ongoing state social service cuts, recovery houses, domestic violence centers, and homeless shelters are double-bound by more clients and fewer resources.

"We’re working with our providers to say voter registration is important, but everybody is scrambling," says Jennine Miller, associate director of education and advocacy for Project H.O.M.E., a Philly-based homeless service provider. "They really need to be infusing funding and have a place to tell people about voting," adds Terrance Meacham, an organizer with the largely volunteer-based Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

At a bustling ShopRite the following Saturday, Karen Lee of the NAACP-allied National Action Network (NAN) tables a few feet away from South Philly Organizing for America volunteers. Lee, 59, is more involved now than in 2008. "Just seeing the decline–the decline in optimism, the disparity of treatment. I’m an optimist to a fault," she says. Through NAN’s Criminal Justice committee, Lee has visited correctional facilities to work with another group of vulnerable voters: people incarcerated for misdemeanors or awaiting trial on felony charges.

At the switchboard of many of these efforts is the non-partisan Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, which comprises more than 170 groups.

"It’s most often seen as a Democrat versus Republican problem but in some ways it’s more of a class problem," says Zack Stalberg, the president of the coalition. "People with a certain amount of means have the right identification and they’re used to showing it." Nonetheless, the coalition has recruited nearly 500 volunteers for door-to-door canvassing, phone-banking, and 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline coverage. The hotline, Stalberg says, fields hundreds of calls every day.

One of the coalition’s main functions is to direct voters to constituent groups that can serve them best. In the case of Latino voters, an ad hoc sub-coalition has emerged. "The law is a sad attempt to make legitimate voters undocumented," says Will Gonzalez, executive director of Ceiba. The silver lining, he says, is that voter ID has brought together the Latino community. When I ask him which groups he’s referring to, he hesitates for fear of not including each one.

The voter ID crisis is so diffuse that it would be impossible to do justice to the constellation of groups and communities fighting on the ground. As of early August, although 99 percent of registered voters believed they had the necessary ID, only 86 percent of those did–and only a third were aware of the law. Many urgently want one but have to jump through hoops to get it.

Inside Philly’s downtown PennDOT office on August 29, hundreds wait patiently for a muffled voice to call their number in queue. Some are there to get new license plates, others, paperwork willing, to get the state’s new voting-only photo ID.

Eulalia Ramos Carrero, a Puerto Rican native, has been there for three hours. First, she had to wait for a month to get a new birth certificate mailed up from her grandmother, in accordance with a 2010 law passed by the Puerto Rican government. Earlier this morning, the PennDOT staff sent her home because she had only one of two required proofs of residence.

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) legal team are dotted in yellow across the room to help people with documentation. "It makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong," says Austin Thompson, a DC-based young worker organizer, of the strict but hazy ID requirements.

On the sidewalk outside PennDOT, "Voter suppression is human oppression!" emanates from a sea of SEIU purple. Richard Snowden, an Obama voter in 2008, storms out of PennDOT incredulous that his registration can’t be found–making him unable to get the ID. Sara Mullen, the state ACLU’s associate director, whips out the Election Protection app on her phone and discovers a glitch in Snowden’s registration data.

"Robo calls aren’t going to do it," Mullen says. "You need in-person contact." Like the NAACP, the ACLU runs an elaborate ground game to go along with its bread-and-butter legal efforts: recruiting volunteers to drive people to PennDOT stations; collaborating with the League of Women Voters and other groups to train law students on birth certificates and social security cards; calling Latino voters–one of the groups most affected by the law throughout the Lehigh Valley; canvassing full-time in Pittsburgh; and holding voter ID clinics in Scranton, Allentown, Harrisburg, and Erie.

A recent headline in the Philadelphia Daily News read, "Best way to deal with voter-ID ruling? Get one." If you can handle demoralizing visits to PennDOT, befuddling documentation and eligibility requirements, and a voting system that the state has effectively outsourced to cash-strapped local governments and non-profits that could otherwise be devoting their time to voter registration, you may be in luck.