Social justice forum educates voters on controversial voter ID law
Joyce Block has voted in every election since 1944. But Pennsylvania’s new voter identification law could end her streak.
Under the law, the 89-year-old Bucks County resident, like all Pennsylvania voters, must show an acceptable photo ID at the polls to vote in the November election.
Having never driven, Block asked for a nondriver photo ID from PennDOT, but agency officials wouldn’t issue one because her maiden name on her birth certificate and social security card didn’t match her married name on her voter registration.
The only proof of marriage she could present? Her ketuba.
It wasn’t enough.
“The Department of Motor Vehicles clerks could not understand the ketuba and refused to accept it as proof of a name change,” said Arlene Levy, a past co-president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.
Block, who eventually got a temporary voter ID with help from her state senator, is one of an estimated 750,000 eligible Pennsylvania voters who could be disenfranchised this fall because of the new law, according to the Department of State.
So much so that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced this week it is investigating the law to determine if it discriminates against minorities.
Levy recounted Block’s story, and that of several other at-risk voters, Monday during a public forum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. She joined a panel, which included State Rep. Dan Frankel, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Executive Director Barb Feige of the American Civil Liberties Union of Greater Pittsburgh, county Elections Manager Mark Wolosik and former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff.
Attorney Mark Frank, who moderated the program, said the Pennsylvania Department of State was invited to participate, but it declined.
The Pittsburgh Jewish Social Justice Roundtable hosted the program, as a means to educate voters on the new law. The ACLU, National Council of Jewish Women, League of Women Voters and Disability Voting Coalition of Pennsylvania all manned information tables throughout the evening.
But panelists also made it clear they oppose the law, seeing it as an effort to suppress voter turnout among elderly, young, disabled and lower income voters who trend Democrat in elections. They cited the party line vote on which the law passed the legislature and a recent statement by House Majority Leader Mike Turzai that it will “allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
Fitzgerald, who said the county must shoulder an unfunded mandate to train its 6,500 election workers in the new law, dismissed GOP claims that the law would fight voter fraud, arguing that it’s already extremely difficult for someone to impersonate a registered voter at the polls.
“You’re not going Downtown; you’re not going to Harrisburg or some mysterious place. You’re going to see your neighbors,” he said. “They know who you are.”
He predicted “absolute chaos” at the polls if the courts do not overturn the law. A suit brought by the ACLU was to be heard Wednesday in Commonwealth Court, Harrisburg.
“You may have done everything right, but the 10 people in front of you may not,” Fitzgerald said. “You may have done everything right and get tied up in that line. That’s their strategy.”
The ACLU passed out “Know Your Voting Rights” cards at the start of the program, which bullets the types of acceptable photo ID under the new law.
Those types include a Pennsylvania driver’s license, PennDOT nondriver photo ID, U.S. passports, U.S. government issued photo ID, U.S. Military or Pennsylvania National Guard photo ID, Pennsylvania municipality-issued photo ID, accredited Pennsylvania college- or university-issued photo ID and nursing and personal care facility ID.
But many Pennsylvanians don’t have acceptable ID, and getting it often requires a birth certificate, which comes with a fee. Many opponents equate that to a poll tax.
The law is still being tweaked, Feige said. She described the legislation as “a moving target.”
The State Department has said it will issue voter-only ID, but only after residents have exhausted all other options Feige said.
In fact, Frankel has introduced a package of bills, called the “Every Voter Counts” package, which would require the Department of State to create a mobile voter outreach program to educate Pennsylvanians about the new voter ID law, waive the fees for a birth certificate if a person needs one to obtain state-issued photo ID, and create an online voter registration system.
“We ought to be doing a lot more if we’re going to do this right,” he said.
About 300 people attended the forum, according to Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee and a convener of the Roundtable.
In delivering the forum’s invocation, Rabbi Ronald B.B. Symons of Temple Sinai whipped out his driver’s license and showed it to the near capacity crowd, which also included supporters of the ID law.
“I know who I am because I have one of these,” he said. “If I don’t hold on to that, I won’t get to vote.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)