Politics
1:37 am
Thu September 27, 2012

Pa. Voters Battle Bureaucracy Ahead Of ID Law Ruling

Originally published on Thu September 27, 2012 7:08 am

The first sign that getting a new ID isn't going to be easy for Beverly Mitchell and Kathleen Herbert comes before the pair have even left their downtown Philadelphia senior center. As they wait for a ride to a nearby Department of Motor Vehicles office, they get the news: The van that was supposed to take them is broken.

Herbert and Mitchell are going to the DMV because they want to make sure they will be able to vote this fall. Depending on how a Pennsylvania judge rules on the state's controversial new voter ID law, they might need to show a valid photo ID before they can punch a ballot.

The court is hearing new testimony this week, and the judge has until next Tuesday to decide whether to block the law, which the state's Supreme Court has ordered him to do if he thinks any voters will be disenfranchised.

Thousands of people in the state are scrambling to get their photo IDs, not waiting for the judge's decision. For many, including Mitchell and Herbert, the process is a struggle.

Battling Bureaucracy To Get To The Ballot

Mitchell, 68, has to renew her expired ID. Herbert has a current ID but needs to update the address. She's 65, has multiple sclerosis and uses a motorized wheelchair. She's not happy about this new law.

"I think it's stupid," Herbert says. "Folks that have been voting all their life, like me, shouldn't have to go through this."

But, for now at least, she does. Eventually, another van is called, and the 9:30 planned departure time becomes more like 10:40.

"I think we can start boarding," says Angela Brown from NewCourtland, the nonprofit that runs the center and is helping low-income seniors get their ID.

"Thank you Jesus," Mitchell says.

The ride is uneventful, but when the women arrive at the DMV and open the door, it's a shock: At least 200 people fill every available seat. Another 50 or so stand in the aisles or are crammed up against the wall. Parents hold squirming children. No one looks happy.

"This is crazy," Mitchell says.

Herbert and Mitchell are given forms to fill out but aren't quite sure what to do with them. At 11 a.m., Mitchell is given an estimated wait time of 39 minutes. Herbert's estimated wait is 1 hour 38 minutes. Both guesses prove overly optimistic.

No one knows how many people in Pennsylvania don't have the correct ID, but at the very least, it's in the tens of thousands. The state has tried to make the process easier by loosening the rules, but some say that has only added to the confusion.

Nothing Like Controversy To Get Out The Vote

Sponsors of the law — all Republicans — say the obstacles are overstated. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe said in a radio interview last week that anyone who wants a photo ID can get one.

"We have a lot of people out there that are too lazy to ... get up and get out there and get the ID they need," Metcalfe told the host.

He and other Republicans say photo IDs are necessary to prevent voter fraud, though the state acknowledged in court that fraud is not a serious problem.

Democrats and civil rights groups say they think the real reason the law was enacted — a reason Republicans reject — is to make it more difficult for poor people and minorities to vote.

What the controversial ID law has done already is energize people to work even harder to register voters and get them to the polls.

In Lancaster, volunteers were recruited at an NAACP voter ID clinic to help people navigate the new law. Lancaster resident Paul Culbreth says that if anyone was trying to suppress the vote, it might have backfired.

"It's a boomerang effect," Culbreth says. "They threw it out there, and now it's coming back to haunt them."

How the ID law will play on Election Day remains to be seen, but at the DMV, Herbert and Mitchell say there's no way they won't vote this year.

After almost two hours, Herbert's number is finally called. She's surprised when the clerk tells her she'll have to pay $13.50 to update her ID. Voter ID is supposed to be free. After NewCourtland's Brown intervenes, the clerk offers another option that is free.

Half an hour later, Mitchell is called. When the clerk asks her to smile for her photo, she says, "Smile? I've been here for more than two hours."

But within minutes, Mitchell is smiling. She's done.

"All right, you are empowered to vote," Brown tells her.

The women get back on the van and arrive at the senior center more than four hours after they were scheduled to leave. Herbert says it wasn't too bad, except she missed bingo — and lunch.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Weeks before Election Day, a Pennsylvania judge is gathering evidence in a case that could determine who gets to vote. It's a challenge to the state's new voter ID law.

GREENE: The state Supreme Court has ordered a lower court judge to look more closely at the law. The question is whether any voters will be disenfranchised.

INSKEEP: At the same time, thousand of people in Pennsylvania are scrambling to get the photo IDs required by that law. Now, for those of us with an ID safely in the wallet, this can seem simple, but NPR's Pam Fessler reports that for many it's not.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Here's the first sign that it wasn't going to be easy for Beverly Mitchell and Kathleen Herbert to get the ID they need to vote.

BEVERLY MITCHELL: We just a call. The van is broken.

KATHLEEN HERBERT: You're kidding me.

MITCHELL: So I suggest that we get some petty cash and find a couple of cabs.

(LAUGHTER)

FESSLER: Those are workers at a downtown Philadelphia senior center, where Mitchell and Herbert have been waiting for a ride to a nearby Motor Vehicles office. Mitchell is 68 and has to renew her expired ID. Herbert has a current ID but needs to update the address. She's 65, with multiple sclerosis and uses a motorized wheelchair. She's not happy about this new law.

HERBERT: I think it's stupid. Folks that have been voting all their life like me shouldn't have to go through this.

FESSLER: But for now at least, she does. Eventually, another van is called. And the 9:30 planned departure time becomes more like 10:40.

ANGELA BROWN: I think we can start boarding.

MITCHELL: Oh, thank you, Jesus.

BROWN: Ready to rock the vote.

MITCHELL: Hey.

(LAUGHTER)

FESSLER: Everyone is led on board by Angela Brown from NewCourtland, the nonprofit that runs the center and is helping low-income seniors get their ID. The ride is uneventful, but when the women arrive at the DMV and open the door, it's a shock.

MITCHELL: This is crazy.

FESSLER: Beverly Mitchell can't believe it. At least 200 people fill every available seat. Another 50 or so stand in the aisles or crammed up against the walls. Parents hold squirming children. No one looks happy. Herbert and Mitchell are given forms to fill out, but aren't quite sure what to do with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

FESSLER: It's 11:00 a.m. Mitchell has been given an estimated wait time of 39 minutes. Herbert's estimated wait is one hour and 38 minutes. Both guesses prove overly optimistic.

No one knows how many people in Pennsylvania don't have the correct ID, but at the very least it's in the tens of thousands. The state has been trying to make the process easier by loosening the rules, but some say that's only added to the confusion. Sponsors of the law, all Republicans, say the obstacles are overstated.

State Representative Daryl Metcalfe said in a radio interview last week that anyone who wants a photo ID can get one.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE DARYL METCALFE: We have a lot of people out there that are too lazy to get off - and what they, you know, to get up and get out there and get the ID they need.

FESSLER: He and other Republicans say photo ID is necessary to prevent voter fraud, although the state acknowledged in court that fraud is not a serious problem. Democrats and civil rights groups think the real reason the law was enacted - a reason Republicans reject - is to make it more difficult for the poor and minorities to vote. That's one reason volunteers were being recruited at an NAACP voter ID clinic in Lancaster, to help people navigate the new law.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What you got to do is see what day which day will work for you. We can use all the help we can get.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What is this for now?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is the...

FESSLER: And indeed, many people here seem energized by the ID controversy to work even harder to register people and get them to the polls. Lancaster resident Paul Culbreth thinks if anyone was trying to suppress the vote, it might have backfired.

PAUL CULBRETH: It's a boomerang effect, you know, when, you know, they threw it out there, and now it's coming back to haunt them.

FESSLER: Although that remains to be seen.

Back at the DMV, Kathleen Herbert and Beverly Mitchell say there's no way they won't vote this year. After almost two hours, Herbert's number is finally called. She's surprised when the clerk tells her she'll have to pay $13.50 to update her ID. Voter ID is supposed to be free. But after Angela Brown intervenes, the clerk offers another option that is free.

A half hour later, Beverly Mitchell is called. When the clerk asks her to smile for her photo, she says, Smile? I've been here for more than two hours. But within minutes she is smiling. She's done.

HERBERT: You are empowered to vote. Yay. (Unintelligible)

FESSLER: The women get back on the van and arrive at the senior center more than four hours after they were scheduled to leave. Herbert says it wasn't too bad, except she missed her favorite activities.

HERBERT: Bingo and lunch.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.