Friday, September 28, 2012

Voter ID Trial Take Two: Morning of 9-27-12

Voters testify about the holes in the “safety net,” aka the Dept. of State ID card (version 1.0)

Tensions ran high on the final day of the second voter ID trial as the cumulative stress and exhaustion from multiple trials in quick succession took its toll. The morning began with a dispute over a supplemental witness list the petitioners’ had submitted after the judge’s deadline of this past Monday at noon. The Commonwealth objected to the inclusion of these witnesses, and Judge Robert Simpson sustained the objection. As a result, two witnesses who had come from out of town – including Philadelphia City Commissioner Stephanie Singer--were in court but not allowed to testify.

ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak pointed out what he described as a double-standard, as the Commonwealth did not provide petitioners with information about the existence of new guidelines for the Dept. of State ID until 4:58 p.m. the day before the trial – despite the fact that the state’s witnesses testified that they had begun work on the new guidelines soon after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its opinion on Sept. 18. Judge Simpson conceded that that conduct had “invited a certain amount of tension.”

Judge Simpson also gave what he described as a “pep talk” to the attorneys, stating he was concerned by conduct of counsel on both sides and asked them to “stand calm and stand tall” for the remainder of the trial. He noted he had “other tools in his toolbox that you [the lawyers] haven’t seen yet” and he would handle matters in another way if he had to.

The morning’s testimony was led off by Doris Clark, a 68-year-old African-American woman from Philadelphia. She made three trips over the summer to PennDOT to get ID in addition to a visit to the Department of Vital Records to get her birth certificate and another excursion to get a copy of her husband’s death certificate (needed to connect the name on her birth certificate with her married name). On her third trip to PennDOT on August 28, she was told her June 2012 letter from the Social Security Administration (which she was told could be used as a substitute for a Social Security card) was too old to use and she would have to get a new one. Fed up, she said, “I hollered ‘I’m handicapped, I’ve done all I can do, and I’m not going to vote. I’m going out there and tell people how you are treating people.’” She was then offered and received the Dept. of State (DOS) ID.

Following Ms. Clark was Lakeisha Pannell, a 35-year-old African-American woman. She took her 2-year-old with her on trips to obtain copies of two utility bills to use as proofs of residency. Lacking a raised-seal birth certificate, she applied for the DOS “for voting only” ID but was initially rejected because her voter registration could not be confirmed. After two four-hour trips to PennDOT with her young son in tow, she finally received her voter ID card after it turned out that her  name in the voter file was spelled “La Keisha” instead of “Lakeisha.”

Another voter who shared her problems obtaining ID from PennDOT was Jessica Hockenbury, a 19-year-old white woman from Pittsburgh. Although she had a raised-seal birth certificate and Social Security card, she only possessed one proof of residency (her pay stub) as she lives with her boyfriend and has no bills in her name. She was denied an ID. An organizer from One Pittsburgh, Alice Thompson, was outside PennDOT and offered to help Ms. Hockenbury get her ID. The pair returned to the center a few days later and asked for a residency verification form, which can be signed by the person an individual lives with as a proof of address. The PennDOT employee was unaware of the form and after speaking with another employee, gave the women the wrong form. When they asked to apply for the free “for voting only ID,” they were told by a PennDOT employee that “we’re not doing those anymore.”

Later that day, having printed out the correct form from PennDOT’s website and gotten it signed by Ms.Hockenbury’s boyfriend, the pair returned to the PennDOT office. The employee who took the application said he had not seen the affidavit form before. On her third trip, Ms. Hockenbury was finally issued a DOS ID.  

Another Philadelphia woman, Slava Lipowicz, took the stand to testify about the difficulties in getting her 87-year-old mother, who relies on a wheelchair, to PennDOT. Her mother is a naturalized American citizen born in the Ukraine who spent time under Nazi rule in Germany. Because of her background, her mother treasures her right to vote, said Ms. Lipowicz, and every Thanksgiving she gives thanks that she lives in the “best country in the world” and sings God Bless America. (Ed. note - I swear I am not making this up.)

Preston Cobb, a 52-year-old African-American man with cerebral palsy who also relies on a wheelchair, testified about his 3-hour excursion to the Media PennDOT. His non-driver PennDOT ID expired October 21, 2011 – which means it would not be valid for voting as it would be expired over a year on Nov. 6. Under the law, a PennDOT ID needed for voting is free. However, PennDOT’s policy is to charge people with IDs that are not yet expired a year – even if they will be expired over a year on Election Day. Mr. Cobb, who lives in low-income housing, was not allowed to apply for a DOS ID and instead was told to pay the $13.50 or come back in November to get the free ID.  

Several Service Employees International Union (SEIU) staff members also testified about their repeated trips to various PennDOT locations across the state and the problems they had witnessed, ranging from clerks who were unfamiliar with the DOS ID procedures to a lack of voter ID-related forms and signs in some centers.

The court then took a break for lunch.

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