News Column

Now the Real Work on Voter ID

Aug. 20, 2012

Bob Warner

U.S. Constitution

For weeks, everyone interested in Pennsylvania's voter identification law had one place to focus their attention -- the Harrisburg courtroom where a judge was considering a challenge aimed at blocking the law from taking effect in the November presidential election.

But now things get more complicated.

With Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson Jr. turning down that challenge, the controversy over voter ID shifts to hundreds of different, disparate locations throughout the state, all potentially important in determining who will be able to vote Nov. 6:

The state Supreme Court, where Simpson's ruling is already under appeal.

The Department of State in Harrisburg, in charge of election apparatus. Just before Simpson opened hearings on the law, the department committed the state to providing a new variety of "voter-only" ID card, not yet available to the public. Department officials are to meet in State College this week with county election officials, hoping to clarify details of how the new ID should work.

The Department of Transportation, now an essential cog in state election machinery on top of its duties licensing drivers and maintaining roads and bridges. PennDot's 71 licensing centers, open for varying hours in 58 counties, are now the main source for most eligible voters to get the ID they will need to vote -- including the new "voter-only" cards that are supposed to become available Aug. 27.

Election offices in Pennsylvania's 67 counties, now described by state officials as the final authorities on whose ballots will count in November. Registered voters whose ID are found deficient at their polling places will be permitted to cast provisional ballots; then they'll have six days after the election to produce ID -- and hope their county board of election accepts it.

Hundreds of civic organizations, churches, labor unions, senior-citizen groups, and housing agencies, now playing critical but unofficial and unpaid roles in educating the public about the new voter ID requirements, advising individuals on exactly what documents they'll need to vote in November and in some instances providing transportation and physical assistance to get people to the right PennDot location.

"Judge Simpson's ruling changed the game and really focused attention on this issue, in a lot of different places," said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of 70. "In that sense it was good, whether you agree with it or not."

His group is a charter member of the PA Voter ID Coalition, formed by some 150 organizations to educate voters about the law and assist those who need help getting acceptable ID.

"Now there are a lot of moving parts, so there definitely is plenty of confusion," Stalberg said. "This is a by-product of passing this law relatively close to a presidential election in which Pennsylvania is likely to be a critical swing state. Had it been done in a different year, this would be a much more orderly process."

He is not the only one using the word confusion.

There is confusion at PennDot centers, where some people report they were asked to pay $15 -- by money order, no personal checks or cash -- for the nondriver IDs that are supposed to be free. Others tell of clerks' inflexible requests for documents they're unable to provide.

"You're thrown into line with sometimes several hundred other people and there's a good chance your clerk hasn't had any special training in dealing with these voter ID issues," Stalberg said.

But one high-profile customer -- 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite, lead plaintiff in the Commonwealth Court case -- succeeded Thursday in landing a photo ID card, after years of denials.

Wheelchair-bound, she got her new card at a PennDot center despite not having some of the documents the law requires. Explained state officials: They had said all along that people who presented proofs of identity would be considered on a "case-by-case" basis.

The same treatment was accorded last month to Sherry Skramstad, 70, of Scranton, who went to PennDot and was initially told she could not get a driver's license without a copy of her 46-year-old Mexican divorce decree. She got her license after The Inquirer asked about her case.

State officials said PennDot clerks could now take age and other factors into consideration and grant exceptions to document requirements on a case-by-case basis.

Another source of confusion, for people trying to figure out if they already have the ID they need to vote: seemingly minor differences between names on photo ID cards and names on voter registration lists.

The new law addresses this issue, saying the name on a voter's photo ID must "substantially conform" to the name on the roll of registered voters, which is duplicated in poll books distributed to every polling place on Election Day.

But the law does not offer any further explanation of what "substantially conform" means -- leaving that to election officials at various levels to figure out on their own.

Renee Cohen, a Democratic committeewoman in Blue Bell, Montgomery County, wanted to identify Democrats in her precinct who might need help.

She called Montgomery County voter services about two of them: a woman who had used the name "Judy" on her voter registration form, but "Judith" on her driver's license, and a man who used the initials "C.J." on his registration, but "Charles J." on his driver's license.

Amanda Witman, a spokeswoman for the Department of State, said both situations described by Cohen "would be 'substantially conforming,' in our opinion. That's what we would recommend to the county election directors. But at the end of the day, it is their decision to make.. . . As we interpret the law, the county election directors do make the final decisions on those issues for their respective counties."

Cohen got a different answer, however, when she called Montgomery County voter services.

Contrary to the state's advice, Cohen said, she was told that the first and last names on the voter's photo ID had to be an exact match with those on the voter registration list -- meaning both "Charles" and "Judy" could have problems at the polls Nov. 6.

Cohen said, "They told me that to be safe, they should reregister, using the same names on their drivers' licenses."

A Montgomery County government spokesman, Frank Custer, suggested that Cohen had been given bad advice when she called and that the county now agrees with the state.

"It's been in a lot of flux, every day a new policy coming down from the Department of State," Custer said. "But it seems to be firming up now. I don't know that you're going to see a lot of movement from here on out in terms of how they apply this law."

The state Supreme Court could still choose to overturn the law on appeal, though some legal experts have said that seems unlikely.

In the meantime, PennDot clerks and state and local elections officials, right down through the ranks of thousands of pollworkers, are left to be the deciders, the questioners and the enforcers.

For one, at least, that task is too much. The judge of elections at a West Chester polling place, Rebecca Greenhow, submitted her letter of resignation to county officials, saying she could not bear to turn away voters if they don't have one of the forms of ID required by the new law.

"I cannot, in good conscience, do that," Greenhow said Friday in an e-mail. "That's it; nothing more."

What to Bring to Polls in Pa.

Registered voters have bring ONE of the following in order to vote Nov 6:

-- A Pennsylvania driver's license or non-driver photo ID issued by PennDot, current or no more than 12 months past its expiration date.

-- A current U.S. passport.

-- Current ID from the U.S. military.

-- An employee photo ID issued by the federal, state or local government.

-- A current photo ID from an accredited Pennsylvania college or university, with an expiration date.

-- A current photo ID issued by a Pennsylvania care facility, such as a personal care home, assisted living residence or long-term care facility.

-- A voting-only ID, to be made available through PennDOT starting Aug. 27, for individuals who are unable to meet the other requirements but can provide birthdates, Social Security numbers and proof of where they live.

Questions?

Call the Department of State's Voter ID Hotline at 1-877-VotesPA (868-3772) or go to http://www.dmv.state.pa.us/voter/voteridlaw.shtml.

Call the nonpartisan Committee of Seventy's hotline, 1-866-OURVOTE or go to www.seventy.org/voterID.

-- Mari Schaefer and Jessica Parks contributed to this article.



Source: (c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by MCT Information Services


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