PHILADELPHIA -- When Betty Ann Workman was a little girl growing up in Philadelphia’s Tioga neighborhood, Election Day was like a family holiday.
“My grandmother would pick me up from school and say, 'Come on darling, put your galoshes on and let's go vote,'” Workman, 80, recalled Tuesday afternoon. “She never missed an election, not a midterm, a primary, not for dog catcher.”
Workman said her grandmother, raised along the Rappahannock River in western Virginia, had suffered the routine indignities and struggles often heaped upon black folks of her era. But she always managed to press on, Workman said.
“She came up during the meanest of circumstances,” Workman said. “But she wouldn’t have missed voting for anything in the world.”
These days, Workman has been summoning her grandmother’s perseverance and commitment to civic involvement as a controversial new voting law in Pennsylvania has threatened to keep many voters, particularly the poor, elderly and the infirmed, from the polls.
The law, which a judge on Tuesday halted from taking effect until after the November election, may likely be in place by 2013, requiring voters to present state-issued photo identification to cast a ballot. But many seniors in Pennsylvania and the 10 other states that have recently passed photo ID laws have neither the required identification nor the supporting documents, including a birth certificate.
“A lot of these folks never had their birth certificates. They moved up here from South Carolina, Georgia, they were brought into the world by midwife,” Workman said. “A lot of the time the midwife delivered them, washed their hands and went on their way.”
Others are too frail to stand in long lines at Pennsylvania Department of Transportation locations in Philadelphia, or don’t have a way to get there in the first place. For others, there are financial issues or confusion about what is now required to vote, something many have been doing much of their adult lives.
“Too often, people don't realize that getting a photo ID is a hardship, especially for seniors and others with fixed or low incomes,” said Candace Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America, a vocal opponent of the laws. “If you don't drive and you live outside a major city, it's very difficult to even get to a place to obtain this ID.”
According to an analysis by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia's elderly are more deeply affected by the law than other age groups, particularly those over 80.
Of the 44,861 active Philadelphia voters aged 80 or older, one in four does not have the required form of ID to vote. That’s a total of 12,313, according to the Inquirer.
The new law was challenged and wound up in the state Supreme Court, which last month kicked the law back to a lower court for reconsideration. A Commonwealth Court judge on Tuesday halted the law, saying there wasn’t enough time before the November elections to make sure no voter would be disenfranchised.
“It’s a modest victory,” said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group that has spearheaded a coalition of voting rights organizations against the law.
The state may appeal the judge’s ruling. And if the law survives, voters will eventually face the requirement to produce photo ID in order to cast a ballot.
A few hours after the ruling, Workman sat at her kitchen table at her home in the East Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, where she's lived for more than 47 years, picking through the literature she’d been passing out to seniors.
“BE PREPARED” one placard read. Workman read part of another handout that offered a pledge: “Now is the time to reach out to your family, friends and neighbors to help get their voter IDs … Please sign up to help three citizens get their voter IDs -– whether it’s your grandmother, a neighbor with disabilities …"
Earlier, Workman said she had been sitting at the same table when her adult daughter, Joy, came bounding down the steps with news of the court ruling.
“She just came running down with a big smile spread across her face,” Workman said. Her daughter has multiple sclerosis, making bounding down the steps a rarity.
It was a moment 10 weeks in the making.
“I woke up one night saying, 'Oh, holy cow. What would my grandmother, what would Nana say about this business about not being able to vote?'” Workman said. “What would she do now, because I know she never had a birth certificate?”
The next day, Workman began organizing people to help educate seniors about the new law and how to get identification. The group canvassed the area and nearby nursing homes and senior facilities. They met with church groups and politicians and wrangled volunteers to drive people to PennDOT centers -- no small task considering there are none on Workman’s side of town.
“We knew if we didn’t do something really quick and thorough many of these seniors were going to be left out of the process,” Workman said.
More than 758,000 registered voters, a huge number likely elderly, still lack the required identification, the state estimated recently.
“Its been a struggle for all of us, I guess me particularly because I’m so emotionally tied to the work that we’re doing,” Workman said.
Roberta Perry, 76, has been one of Workman’s loyal comrades in recent weeks. “I’m concerned about this law,” Perry said on Monday afternoon at the Germantown office of the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, where she volunteers a few days a week. “I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren and I don’t want them to be robbed of their vote.”
“But the senior citizens,” Perry said, “many of them are elderly and fragile and can’t get around easily or gave up their driver’s licenses or can’t wait in long lines.”
Back at Workman’s kitchen table over a cup of coffee, she recalled a life of helping others.
“It’s sort of in my blood,” said Workman, who spent nearly a half-century as an educator.
At the start of World War II, her mother was summoned to Washington, to work for the Office of Civilian Defense, making sure people knew what to do if bombs fell or there was a food shortage. Politicians were frequent visitors to their home in Philadelphia, she said, and her parents were players in the city's black political establishment.
In the 1960s, on the eve of the March on Washington, Workman recalled her late husband, a schoolteacher, lecturing their two children on the meaning of the march.
The next day the family stayed glued to the television, and her young children shouted and pointed with glee as the mass of humanity poured across the screen. “Is that daddy? Is that daddy?” she remembered her then 2-year-old asking.
So it’s with particular anger that she sees these voter ID laws, which she described as a shame to our democracy.
“I’m at once sad because people have to be put through all these hoops to do what is their right, its not a privilege, it hasn’t been a privilege for a very long time, “ Workman said. “I’m very sad that our elders have to be concerned not with when they can get to church, or their next meal or their aches and pains -- but a civil right about voting.
I’ve watched their faces and I’ve seen them worry,” she said, recalling a recent group of “little old ladies” decked out in dresses and hats peppering her with questions and concerns. And a 92-year-old woman who said she didn’t have the $8 it costs to get back and forth from the PennDOT office or the 80-something man who had trouble understanding the ID application, but was dead-set on voting in November.
“Today’s ruling is a well-deserved respite in terms of this year’s election,” Workman said. “We still have to worry about those older people who may be on the verge of dementia, but know enough about their world to know one thing -- that they want to vote.”
Workman took a long pause.
“It’s not over,” she said. “I’m going on with the fight. At 80, I guess I don’t know how much longer I have. But it’s not over yet.”