Monday, April 23, 2012

When I say "ID law" you say "poll tax"

Have you ever bullied a PennDOT employee into giving a man the free ID that he deserved? Until Wednesday afternoon I would have said, "No." More on this later.

Wednesday, April 18 was Pittsburgh's voter ID action, held at noon at the Smithfield Street PennDOT Driver's License Center in downtown Pittsburgh. The action was organized by the Protect Our Vote coalition and modeled after the event held in Philadelphia shortly after the voter ID law was signed by the governor. 

Driving down to the rally, I wasn’t expecting much other than what we put in the media advisory: a set of people getting free IDs, advocates holding signs, and a press conference. But it has been said that one has be an optimist to do the work of a community organizer. Perhaps that's why I thought that PennDOT would be far more prepared to respond to the demand for free, state-issued, non-driver photo IDs for voting purposes. At the very least I figured, since our coalition of organizations and activists had been aggressively advertising for one and a half weeks,  PennDOT would respond by putting their most polite, seasoned, and trained staff to work that day to prove us wrong.

...Did I mention that I'm an optimist?

On the day of the action people seeking free IDs for the purpose of voting each filed into the DMV with an advocate. So why would someone need an advocate to get a free non-driver photo ID? Because more than a month since the law passed, PennDOT employees were not trained, were not courteous, and were not ready.

Here are just a couple examples of misinformation from PennDOT employees:

* Two people were forced to pay for their non-driver IDs because their IDs had not yet been expired for a year. So, while their IDs would be more than a year past expiration on November 6th and thus invalid for voting, they had to pay for IDs on Wednesday, April 18th. 

* A couple from Wilkinsburg who had lost their non-driver photo IDs were turned away. These citizens of the commonwealth (both currently unemployed) were told that they could not get a free ID for voting purposes because they had lost their previous IDs.

I personally helped a man who had been turned away for no reason. My conversation with a PennDOT employee went like this:

Me: I'm sorry, could you explain why this gentleman can't get an ID?

PennDOT: The IDs are primarily for people who have never before had an ID in Pennsylvania. 

Me: He needs this ID to be able to vote in the November election and he has all of the required documents…

PennDOT: There are a number of other IDs that one can use to vote in the November election. Student ID, state employee ID…

Me: [To the person I'm helping] You're not a student are you? An employee of a college or university? A member of the US armed forces? 

Slightly embarrassed, exhausted Pennsylvanian: Um, no.

We went on like this for a little longer before the PennDOT employee finally let the man go through. At this point I was certain that a new PennDOT training manual must include a picture of a dragon guarding a treasure and a caption that says, "When a Pennsylvanian asks you for a free ID for voting, remember that state issued IDs are precious. Always think: WWDD? What would a dragon do?"


I left the rally with a stack of intake forms and a furrowed brow. On the drive back I was fuming. Why were they making this so hard? Why weren't they ready? And if that's how I felt, I can guarantee that the people who came down to get voting IDs also felt…taxed. Certainly emotionally, some physically, and for a good number, financially. 

- Ngani Ndimbie, ACLU-PA Community Organizer



Anonymous Thomas Waters said...

Thanks for such a clearly written and compelling post. Proponents of Voter ID claim there is no hindrance to voting created by this un-needed obstacle, but i reality, there will be many people who are disenfranchised from their right to vote because of a poorly written, poorly planned, and poorly implemented law.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When will the PA ACLU file suit to stop this law, as it definitively violates the U.S. constitution in many ways and in many amendments and sections of the entire constitution. The list of amendments this affects is at least 5 or 6 and at least 1 section of an article of the constitution pertaining to compliance with the federal constitution by state executives and legislators, etc. Are we going to wait until an entire election is done and had fraudulently withheld people from voting who should have been able to do so??? What more will it take for some honest action around here?!

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Ngani said...

The ACLU of PA is working with a few other firms/organzations and will be filing a lawsuit within 1 week. It will raise constitutional claims about denying people their right to vote. And we will be asking for the court to block enforcement of the law before November’s election. Stay tuned to our blog, Facebook, and Twitter for more updates.

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Ngani said...

+ Thanks, Tom! Let's hope we can defeat this law before it gets implemented!

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who works in the Pittsburgh Driver's License Center, I can only say that we have to follow the guidelines given by the state and cannot creatively depart from those guidelines under threat of dismissal.
The blame for this law and its administration does not lie with PennDOT but rather the state legislature and governor.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Sara Mullen said...

Believe me, we wish that PennDOT employees did not have to be involved in voting issues. We agree the ultimate problem is with the state legislature, but PennDOT higher ups should be providing adequate training to their employees, and they are not.

I personally called the PennDOT Customer Care phone number last week and was given incorrect information. I had to insist the representative was wrong and wait 18 minutes on hold before getting the right information. That's not acceptable.

But you're right, it's not the fault of the average PennDOT employee. It's a training issue that needs to be fixed.
- Sara Mullen, Assoc. Director, ACLU-PA

12:29 PM  
Blogger grubvallance said...

The Secure Our Election coalition and made after the occurrence organised in Chicago soon after the voter ID law was finalized by the governor.

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2:18 PM  

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