Voter ID laws: one person's arduous effort to comply

In many states, GOP-backed laws will demand that voters show their papers this fall. A newcomer to one state tells what he had to do to prepare.
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Poll workers in Philadelphia during the 2008 election: A new state law is expected to dampen voting among the minorities and the poor there.

In many states, GOP-backed laws will demand that voters show their papers this fall. A newcomer to one state tells what he had to do to prepare.

This past winter I moved to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., where I had lived for about 3.5 years. I never bothered to register to vote down there, since the District doesn’t have voting representation at the federal level. (Yes, reader: The denizens of our nation’s capital live in a world of taxation without representation. They even slapped the phrase on their license plates in protest.) So for the interim I sent absentee ballots back home, even though they couldn’t have meant much in true-blue New York. At least I could help keep my Congresswoman in office.

But Pennsylvania is a different story. While not quite Ohio or Florida, the sixth most populous state is decidedly a swinger, and it came as an empowering shock when I realized my vote could count for something. As the white noise of this year’s election cycle grew louder and louder, I realized I wanted to change my registration.

But wait! In March, the state government passed a law, promptly signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, requiring voters to show government-issued photo ID at the polls starting this November. Proponents have argued that the move will help safeguard against voter fraud. Last month a state judge upheld the law, despite cries over its potential lack of constitutionality and a lawsuit from the ACLU.

On the blog Examine Voter ID, former journalist Tom Boyer crunched the numbers and found that the ID law will have a disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic voters, specifically in Philadelphia. Emily Badger, writing at The Atlantic Cities, talks about the tricky urban dynamic behind the legislation: In addition to putting hurdles in front of minorities, the poor and the elderly, does Pennsylvania’s new law target its largest (and most left-leaning) city?

As it happens, I’m in a position to find out. Like many Philadelphians, I don’t drive — an out-of-state license wouldn’t cut it, anyhow — and have never joined the military, worked for the government or an “accredited Pennsylvania public or private institution of higher learning,” or spent an ample amount of time in a state care facility. In other words, I don’t have any sort of acceptable identification to show a poll worker in the Commonwealth, and in order to vote as a Pennsylvanian this November I first had to go through the state Department of Transportation, known in these parts as PennDOT.

With that in mind, below is a log of the time and money I spent in my efforts to secure an official Pennsylvania ID:

Thursday, August 23

  • 2:15pm Leave the office. The PennDOT Driver’s License Center closes at 4:15pm on weekdays, so I have to skip out of work early to get there with enough time. (It’s not open on Sundays, my only free day.) Total cost in work hours lost: about $42.97.
  • 2:27pm Catch the Route 48 bus to Eighth and Market streets. Fare: $2 (With tokens a bus ride would only cost $1.55, but I’m out and there’s no place nearby in my Brewerytown neighborhood to restock.)
  • 2:47pm Realize I accidentally got on the Route 7 bus, not the 48. Exit at 21st and Market. When I see that another 48 isn’t coming, I run underground and hop on a 36 Trolley to 13th and Market, where I stock up on tokens. I walk the remaining six blocks. Fare before the tokens purchase: $2
  • 3:02pm Arrive at the PennDOT center at Eighth and Arch streets. Estimated wait time: 24 minutes.
  • 4:06pm Number called. At the counter I find out that in addition to my birth certificate and social security card,* I need to show two proofs of my current mailing address, which I don’t have. Leave empty-handed.
  • 4:12pm Catch the 48 bus to 29th and Girard. Fare: $1.55

*I had to have my parents mail both of these items to Philly, since I move often and prefer to keep them where I know they’re safe. Cost for priority shipping with the U.S. Postal Service: $12.95. (If I didn’t have a birth certificate and had been born in Pennsylvania, it would have cost me $10 for a new one.)

Friday, August 31

  • Thanks to Labor Day weekend and my cushy desk job, I don’t have work today. If I did, I would once again have to sacrifice three hours worth of wages, or about $42.97.
  • 1:49pm Catch the 48 bus to Eighth and Market. Fare: $2 (I’ve used all my tokens since the week before.)
  • 2:20pm Arrive at PennDOT. Given number C996. They are just rounding C890.
  • 4:04pm Number called. Told to go to a different counter.
  • 4:15pm Since this is my first Pennsylvania ID card, I get it for free. If it wasn’t, I’d have to pay a $13.50 fee. Ready take photo. Given number A052. They are rounding A260.
  • 5:18pm Photo taken. Issued temporary state ID card. The real one should arrive in the mail within a few weeks. Catch the 48 bus to 29th and Girard. Fare: $2

Total cost: $65.47

Now, for some statistics: The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour, or about $58 a day. The city of Philadelphia has a 26.7 percent poverty rate — bear in mind that the federal poverty level is $11,170 ($46.56 a day) for a single individual, $23,050 ($96.04 a day) for a family of four — on top of a 7.3 percent unemployment rate, according to the most recent census numbers. For many, obtaining an ID means sacrificing at least a day’s wages, probably more.

There are efforts to ease this burden. In anticipation of the law’s passing back March, the Committee of Seventy, a political watchdog group, convened a coalition of local organizations focused on reaching out to voters “in a nonpartisan way,” according to Ellen Kaplan, the committee’s vice president and policy director (speaking on the phone, Kaplan repeatedly stressed the “nonpartisan” detail). The coalition not only coordinates educational outreach efforts in the form of phone calls, pamphlets, social media and door-to-door canvassing, but aims to help walk citizens through the whole process of getting an ID, from providing free transportation to and from PennDOT centers, to working with senior citizens in assisted care facilities, to offering help with paperwork.

But still, it can be damn costly, especially for the city’s 410,000 low-wage and no-wage earners — or about one-quarter of its population — to comply with the voter ID law. It was hard enough for this politically aware writer to land eligible documentation without losing a hefty sum of time and money. And the Committee of Seventy’s coalition can’t reach everyone.

This story originally appeared on Next American City and is published under a partnership agreement with the site.


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