Eighty to ninety thousand eligible voters in Pennsylvania could be disenfranchised because they do not have the photo identification required by the Commonwealth's new voter ID law. Passed in March with only Republicans voting for the bill and signed by GOP Governor Tom Corbett, the voter ID law could suppress the voting rights of women, minorities, senior citizens, the poor and students. The sixteenth state to pass a voter ID law, Pennsylvania's is among the most restrictive.
Citizens in the Keystone State, however, are not sitting by passively while their voting rights are under threat. Pennsylvanians have been mobilizing on two fronts in response to the law, through the courts and through grassroots education initiatives.
When I asked Corbett administration spokesperson Ron Ruman whether the administration had any data that proved there was a pattern of voter fraud in PA that justified passing the voter ID law, he responded that there is no data that proves there was or is voter fraud in Pennsylvania. One can only ask, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?
During a follow-up call to the Corbett administration, spokesperson Matthew Keeler explained that the administration did not "intend" to disenfranchise voters and is "striving" to see that those affected will have the required IDs. Unfortunately, there are many citizens who dispute the administration's claim.
On May 1 the ACLU, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), the Advancement Project, and the law firm of Arnold & Porter, LLP filed a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's voter ID law on behalf of ten plaintiffs ranging from ages 22 to 93 who have not be able to secure the required photo identification. Among the allegations in the suit is that Corbett's assurance that voters can obtain an ID for free is false "because the state will not waive the $10 fee for a birth certificate necessary to obtain one."
As the legal challenge works its way through the courts, community groups are educating the public. According to the Women's Law Project, "the new law will disproportionately impact women." Poor and elderly Pennsylvanians are less likely to have the required photo ID or to be able to afford the documents necessary to obtain one before the November election, and "women are more likely than men to fall into these groups."
In response, women have mobilized. On May 4, forty members of the Alumnae Chapters of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from across Pennsylvania traveled to Harrisburg to meet with legislators and gather information about the voter ID law. Led by Marvetta Coleman, state coordinator of Delta's Social Action Initiative, the women's goal is to make sure that voters in their communities have the information they need to obtain government-issued photo IDs required by the new law.
On Saturday May 12, a "Voter ID Day" was held at the Progress Haddington Plaza in West Philadelphia, an African American neighborhood in the state's 190th legislative district. Organized by community leader Mabel Welborn with volunteers from the Leon H. Sullivan Charitable Trust (which also donated office space) and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women-Pennsylvania Chapter (NCBW-PA), the event educated the public about the new law and provided practical information about how to secure a government-issued photo ID. Throughout the day, a steady flow of citizens of all ages came to learn how to protect their precious right to vote.
"If we work together, we can accomplish the daunting task of preparing everyone who wants to vote," Welborn said.
Robyn Younger, President of NCBW-PA explained, "The voter ID law could suppress the vote of African American women. It also promotes the spirit of Big Brother is watching."
"This is one of the most powerful districts in the state," explained State Representative Vanessa Lowry Brown who represents the 190th district, "because we have so many senior citizens who have been voting consistently for thirty to forty years." She added, "They are our most patriotic citizens, but because of this law, a percentage of them could lose their voting rights. We are giving everyone here today the credentials they need to survive -- beyond voter ID."
Volunteers provided person-to-person instructions on how to apply for voter registration cards, copies of birth certificates, non-drivers licenses, social security cards, and passports. Those who cannot obtain a birth certificate learned how to access census records to "prove that they exist." Participants also received a copy of the Voter Identification Education Guide published by the Philadelphia delegation of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
African American voters in Philadelphia along with voters from the Philly suburbs are two vital keys to winning elections in Pennsylvania. With 20 electoral votes, Pennsylvania is a critical state, and even two percentage points can make a difference in the outcome.
Critics of the voter ID laws point out that they have been passed only in states under GOP leadership and that they threaten to disenfranchise Americans who voted for President Obama in 2008 -- seniors, African Americans, Latinos and young people.
Ultimately, these laws affect all Americans because when the voting rights of our most vulnerable citizens are threatened, everyone's rights are threatened. Democracy is not a fait accompli, it requires attention and constant care or else it might be lost.
Beware: Voter IDs laws are the first step on a dangerous, slippery slope.