Will voter ID law keep balloters away from the polls?

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court today is expected to hear oral arguments in an appeal of the state's voter ID law, set to take effect in time for the general election on Nov. 6.

With voter turnout in the state expected to be around 70 percent due to interest in the presidential election, some voters here who are still ID-less are concerned about what will happen if the law isn't overturned or delayed and if they are turned away from the voting booth.

"I'm just going to wing it," said Asher Schor, a transgender man whose photo identification -- a driver's license and passport -- still identifies him as a female. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens."

Accepted forms of identification

The last day to register to vote in the Nov. 6 presidential election is Oct. 9. In addition to a driver's license, the following forms of photo ID are acceptable:

• Nondriver photo ID or voter-only ID, both available from PennDOT

• Valid U. S. passport

• Current local, state or federal government employee ID with specified expiration dates

• Current military ID

• Current student identification with a specified expiration date from an accredited Pennsylvania college or university

• Photo ID with an expiration date from a licensed care facility.

More information: The League of Women Voters of Washington County will present a program tonight explaining new voter ID requirements with Larry Spahr, director of the Washington County Election Office. The program will be held at 7 p.m. in the first-floor meeting rooms of the Courthouse Square Office Building in Washington, Pa. Parking is available in the garage.

To register to vote or for more information about voter ID: go to www.votespa.com or call the state voter ID hotline at 1-877-VotesPA (868-3772).

A paralegal from Bloomfield, Mr. Schor, 23, began his gender transformation two years ago with a mastectomy. He has since been taking male hormones, resulting in facial hair, sideburns and a slightly altered facial structure.

Mr. Schor is one of an estimated 18,500 transgendered Pennsylvanians, about a third of whom whose names and bodies no longer resemble their identification, according to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles, that specializes in gender identity issues.

It will be up to poll workers in individual precincts to determine how strictly to interpret and enforce the new law.

Burden for poll workers

The uncertainty among poll workers could be a wild card that may create chaos on Election Day, said state Rep. Frank Dermody of Oakmont, House Democratic leader, who has his own voter identification issue.

"We have dedicated people who come out and work these polls every year and those folks will feel pressure. They could be charged with a crime. It's a shame," said Mr. Dermody, who is identified as "Francis" on his voter registration but as "Frank" on his driver's license. Because the two don't match, Mr. Dermody is worried that he could be unable to vote in his own re-election race, again depending on the state's approximately 40,000 poll workers, who have received training guides from the State Department but little other guidance when it comes to how strictly they should enforce the new law.

According to the State Department, voters' names on their photo identification don't need to match exactly, but they must "substantially conform" to one another -- a rule that's open to interpretation, Mr. Dermody said.

"Most of them are concerned about this," he said of poll workers he has spoken to about the issue. "Many of them know the people who vote in their precincts."

Mr. Schor was one member of a group who signed onto a challenge of the law by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and other groups. The challenge argued that as many as 1 million of the state's 8.2 million registered voters didn't have an acceptable form of ID and that obtaining one would be unduly burdensome on the state's poor, elderly, uneducated and minority population.

To underscore that point, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous urged black voters during a recent trip to Pittsburgh to fight the legislation, calling it a "bald-faced" attempt to dampen turnout by minority voters.

Court decision upholds law

But in his Aug. 15 decision, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled that the photo identification requirement wasn't unconstitutional, upholding the legislation that Republicans said would protect the integrity of elections.

Another subset of voters likely to be affected by the new law is senior citizens, many of whom don't drive or use computers or may not be able to obtain birth records easily.

The family of 84-year-old Nadine Marsh of Hanover, Beaver County, said they believe they finally have a resolution for her voter ID issue -- she doesn't drive and her birth certificate was destroyed in a hospital fire decades ago.

Her case isn't atypical, but Mrs. Marsh's family said they still found themselves stymied by new rules and regulations that would have kept their loved one from voting.

Mrs. Marsh's granddaughter Suzanne Smith said it took three emails, two phone calls and a week of pestering State Department officials to get confirmation that a bank statement and residency verification from Mrs. Marsh's daughter, with whom she lives, would suffice as proof of her identity.

Still, to obtain the voter ID for Mrs. Marsh, her daughter and son-in-law will have to take time off work, appear with her at a PennDOT driver's license center and sign forms attesting that she lives with them. The driver's center in Rochester is 20 miles from their home.

"She's been a perfectly functioning member of society all her life without a photo ID," said Ms. Smith, who said her grandmother was widowed 30 years ago and had no checking account or utility bills in her name.

In Washington County, two lawyers working pro bono tried unsuccessfully to have the voter ID law declared unconstitutional on behalf of four petitioners without proper identification, including a 91-year-old woman who has never had a driver's license; a 20-year-old college student whose identification from Duquesne University lacks a required expiration date; a 27-year-old woman who recently married but hasn't yet updated her voter registration with her new surname; and a 24-year-old man who also never updated his surname on his voter registration after he changed it back to its original Greek spelling.

Lawyers Renata Seneca and Mario O'Dell Seneca said their clients were disappointed recently when Washington County Common Pleas Judge Katherine Emery rejected their challenge. After the lawyers urged her to reconsider, the judge reversed her earlier ruling Friday and decided to stay the case until the Supreme Court makes a decision.

"The people at the polls could turn us away," Renata Seneca said. "We're most worried about isolating these people. We're worried that this takes away one of their fundamental rights."

Mary Golden, 78, of Brentwood said she is disgusted by the law -- an obvious attempt, she believes, to disenfranchise senior citizens, women and minorities. Those are the demographic that usually supports Democrats.

"It's just all the injustice of the thing," said Ms. Golden, who also has never had a driver's license. "It's clearly directed against people who don't drive, people who live in cities and are older."

Ms. Golden's view would seem to be bolstered by Republican Party leaders, including House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, in his now-infamous remarks at a June meeting of the Republican State Committee, when he said that passage of the voter ID law would "allow Governor [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."

Ms. Golden has a passport, but it's due to expire before the Nov. 6 election.

To obtain a new one before the Oct. 9 voter registration deadline, she will have to pay between $30 and $140 to renew her passport or pay nearly $100 for an expedited birth certificate from Minnesota, where she was born.

Rights in jeopardy

Ms. Golden believes those fees are the equivalent of a poll tax, a form of voter suppression that was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966.

"It isn't that I don't have the money," she said. "What about the people who don't have my resources?"

Ms. Golden, who votes in every election, has credit cards and a photo ID from Costco, a membership warehouse. She said her neighbor is a local poll worker.

"I don't see why my other IDs aren't enough," she said. "People at the polls know who I am."

Janet Gray, 64, of Squirrel Hill said she's concerned about older voters who may not have received one of the 758,000 letters sent earlier this summer from the State Department, intended to notify residents that the names on their voter registration and driver's licenses don't match.

"Think about all of the people who might not be aware of this and will show up at the polls in November and they won't be able to vote," said Ms. Gray, who received a letter because her middle initial didn't match.

Lynne Porterfield, an "over 65" resident of Highland Park who is a retired educator and administrator with a doctoral degree, said that despite her education and life experience, she had trouble deciphering what the letter meant.

Ms. Porterfield found out after doing some research that she, too, had a middle-initial discrepancy.

Although the issue was easy enough for her to remedy, Ms. Porterfield and others wonder how many voters won't understand the message.

"Why would you not let people know the purpose of the letter and what they need to do?" she said. "If I'm frustrated, can you imagine what other people feel?"

Mr. Dermody said he also received one of the letters and promptly tossed it aside, not realizing his right to vote was in jeopardy.

"I looked at it and threw it down in a pile of junk mail," he said. "I thought it was a joke."

Effort to delay ID law

Ms. Porterfield and Ms. Gray said they don't have an issue with requiring voters to produce identification, but both support delaying the new law to give voters more time to address their issues and to obtain identification without incurring fees.

Ms. Gray started an online petition at http://signon.org/sign/delay-pa-voter-id-law?source=c.fwd&r_by=338650 to encourage delaying the implementation of the new law.

"I think that's fair," she said of a delay. "I think it's incumbent on the state to ensure that every person who is eligible to vote is able to vote."

Ms. Golden said she intends to pay the fees to update her ID, although she also plans to take out her frustration at the polls -- on Republican candidates.

"I'll do something, but in the meantime, I'm going to make a fuss so these people can't steal the election," she said.

Many older voters who live in personal care or nursing homes in the area already take advantage of absentee ballots, which don't require a photo ID or a trip to the polls.

"Everything is going fine here," said Bernie Erb, administrator of Baptist Homes, a personal care, independent living and skilled nursing home in Mt. Lebanon.

Absentee voting is common among his residents, Mr. Erb said, and those who want to vote in person can easily do so with the photo ID provided by the facility.

"They're not really in any position to go to the polls," Mr. Erb said of residents in the skilled nursing section of the facility. "Most of them don't drive anymore."

The Mt. Lebanon facility -- and a similar one called Providence Point in Scott -- provides absentee ballots for hundreds of residents, he said, and staff members can help fill out paperwork if needed.

"We have them here," he said of the absentee ballots. "We help them get registered if they're not."

An excessive number of absentee ballots isn't a concern for Allegheny County elections officials, although with the anticipated confusion at the polls and the high turnout, county elections director Mark Wolosik testified in Commonwealth Court that implementing the new requirements could overwhelm the department with as many as 35,000 provisional ballots and long lines at polling places. Provisional ballots will be offered to voters without acceptable identification and won't be counted unless the voter can prove his or her identity within six days. During the 2008 presidential election, only 2,800 provisional ballots were cast countywide.

Former Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields may find himself in that position because he intends to protest the new law by refusing to show identification at his voting precinct. He hopes to be permitted to vote anyway, but Mr. Shields said, if not, he's prepared to cast a provisional ballot or go to court.

"People are going to walk in there with a defective ID and they are going to get turned away?" he asked. "It's a fundamental issue and it's really sad to see it come to fruition in Pennsylvania."

Mr. Dermody said he wants the Supreme Court to give voters and poll workers more time, education and resources before the law is implemented.

"I'm hopeful, but I'm also realistic," he said about the chances that the law would be blocked. "Frankly, I think it's the least they should do. It's unconstitutional and it should be thrown out."

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867. First Published September 13, 2012 4:00 AM


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