Philadelphia Groups Scramble to Help Residents Get Voter
Aura Bogado and Voting Rights Watch 2012
September 12, 2012
Pennsylvani’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?
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 forty 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 two 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
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)
Of the sixty 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 HOME, 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
nonpartisan 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
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 young DC-based 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 nonprofits that
could otherwise be devoting their time to voter
registration, you may be in luck.
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