The State of Pennsylvania v Voting: Why ID Laws Matter

August 7, 2012
by carlsnodgrass

NOTE: The following is a work-in-progress opinion piece. Enjoy.

I. PA’s New Law

The pollworkers for the Pennsylvania primary this year asked everyone in line if they had photo ID—not because we needed it for that election, but because they wanted to make sure people were ready for November, when PA’s new and very strict voter ID law goes into effect.  Setting aside how I feel about the upcoming law, I thought this was a thoughtful preparedness measure.  I live in a middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood.  I hope pollworkers took the same care in the many low-income areas of Philly.

For whatever reason, voter ID is hot right now.  At least 38 states chose 2011 and 2012 to crack down on an imagined problem—that individual voters are, or could be, engaging in rampant election fraud—even though there is literally a negative amount of evidence to support it.

Pennsylvania’s new law, which is currently facing legal challenge, would become one of the nation’s strictest.  It requires voters to provide an acceptable form of photo ID; the prescribed “acceptable” list is short and rigid.

Many will say (have said), So what?  Big deal.  Any legally eligible person can get a government-issued photo ID.  People should have to verify who they are before casting a vote, and the minor inconvenience of getting a photo ID outweighs the potential threat of fraudulent voting.

I agree completely that every voter should have to verify their identity.  No one disagrees with that.  What I reject are the notions that A) current ID laws are too weak, and, more strongly, B) getting a government-issued photo ID is easy (or even possible) for everyone.  Maybe it was easy for you.  That’s great!  It doesn’t follow from your experience, however, that it will be easy for every person.  I know this is true because last year, for the first time ever, it was not at all easy for me.

It’s important to clarify that I am in every way the product of privilege and opportunity.  I am white; I am male; I never went hungry growing up.  I didn’t earn any of this and yet I’ve benefited heavily from all of it.  In virtue of my whiteness, maleness, and parents’ income, I don’t need to work hard or be famous to succeed at most things.  It’s completely unfair, but if you don’t think it’s true, you’re definitely at least one of those things yourself.

And now: the story of how even a person born with every opportunity and advantage can have one hell of a time getting a photo ID card.

II. PennDOT v Personal Identity

My legal name, since birth and until a year ago, was Carl Gavin Tewksbury Snodgrass.  (My parents have equally ridiculous last names; why would they choose one?)  The name is not only fun to say, it’s also very long.  Too long, it turned out, to fit on my Oregon driver’s license when I was 18.  So I made a choice.  I was to be Carl Gavin Snodgrass for the Oregon DMV.  Everywhere else I was still officially a Tewksbury Snodgrass.  I ran into some resistance once when I renewed my passport, but I eventually convinced the US government that I was in fact both Carl Gavin Snodgrass AND Carl Gavin Tewksbury Snodgrass.  Other than that, I have lived this double-life—filing taxes and filling out W-4s as “Tewksburysnodgra” and getting driver’s licenses and passports in Oregon, New York, and Montana as “Snodgrass”—without incident.

…Until I came to Philadelphia.  I went to PennDOT (PA’s DMV) to get my driver’s license.  Just looking at the application form, I could tell it was going to be unusually difficult.  You have to provide ALL of the following to get an ID:

  • Your Social Security card
  • Either a certificate of citizenship/naturalization, a birth certificate (with a raised seal), or a passport.
  • TWO proofs of residency that must be from one of these categories: current utility bills (cell phone bills are not acceptable), lease agreements, W-2 forms, current weapons permits, or mortgage payments documents.

Basically, you will not get a PennDOT ID if you’re unemployed and don’t have a utility bill in your own name or own a house, or you don’t have a passport or access to your birth certificate, or you don’t have a Social Security card (the number alone is not acceptable, it must be the card).  

I could obtain all these documents because I have lots of support and easy access to my personal records.  I arrived at PennDOT midday on a Tuesday and waited about 4 hours to have my number called.  Everything went smoothly with the clerk at the window until it was time to verify my mountains of proof of identity against the records at Social Security.  The clerk was very nice and understood that since I provided a passport, a MT Driver’s license, two utility bills, a birth certificate AND a Social Security card, I was probably who I claimed to be, even if two of the items had one extra last name on them.  His computer was less understanding.  He could not go to the next frame because the computer could not verify that Carl Gavin Tewksbury Snodgrass was also Carl Gavin Snodgrass.  A manager came over but, even though he too understood the situation and found it confusing that the computer did not, there was nothing he could do; there is no overriding a PennDOT computer screen.  I would have to solve the issue with Social Security.

I went the to the Social Security office the next day and met with yet another very nice clerk who saw that the US government believed that I was the same person even if PennDOT did not, and wrote an official letter of verification, which he stamped and sealed.  I took this letter back to PennDOT but it was no use.  The computer just didn’t care.  I went back to Social Security.  After another round of backs and forths, I finally accepted that in order to get a PA driver’s license I would have to legally change my name.  I took whatever oath and dance they make you do at Social Security and legally became Carl Gavin Snodgrass.  Social Security changed my name within 24 hours but I had to wait for my new Social Security card to arrive in the mail before I could complete the PennDOT process.

All told, this process took nearly a month.  It was exhausting and time-consuming (every trip to PennDOT or Social Security required hours of sitting and waiting), and it wasn’t quite over.  When I finally got to the end of the line at PennDOT, reviewed my photo, and went to sign the electronic signature that would appear on my license, the woman overseeing the signage asked me, “How do you spell your name?”  I spelled it for her.  She looked at my signature and shook her head.  According to her, signatures have to be legible for NSA security reasons.  My signature, which I’ve used since I was 15, is perhaps a little doctor-y but it’s my signature.  It’s on everything, including my passport.  I doubt very much that NSA actually requires legible signatures.  But I was tired, happy to be done with it all, and in no mood to argue.  So I signed a more readable perversion of my chicken scratch.

Unfortunately I also registered to vote at the same time.  I didn’t realize, though I should have, that my bizzaro driver’s license signature would be the one used by elections officials to check against my in-person signature.  I did a double-take at my “official signature” when I signed my name at the polls, because it absolutely did not look like my handwriting.  Luckily (for me) no pollworker yet has taken the time to inspect one signature against the other.

III. Why This Matters

The point of this is not that the state of Pennsylvania chewed two name- and signature-sized holes in my identity.  Rather, the point is this. I have the advantage/privilege trifecta: I am an over-educated white male—something as unfair as it is true.  On top of that, I was able to provide the unbelievably strict laundry list of documents required by PennDOT to get my ID.  And still it took a month, a legal name-change, heaps of paperwork, and hours/days/weeks of headache.   I had the time to get it all done because I was temporarily out of work and had no children or other major responsibilities.  Again, lucky me!  It’s not hard to imagine hundreds of scenarios that would have made this process a lot longer if not impossible.

PennDOT has kindly offered to provide free voter ID cards to those who cannot afford to pay for regular photo IDs.  But the required documents to obtain the voter ID are the same as those to get a driver’s license.   To be clear: in order to get a “free” voter ID card from PennDOT you need to be able to provide a physical copy of your Social Security card AND either a passport, official birth certificate, or certificate of naturalization AND two (narrowly-defined) proofs of residency.  

This matters because all of those documents also require substantial ID verification, and most will cost money.  The process can get circular and expensive; and the fewer resources and advantages you have, the more costly and circular the process gets.

This matters because even if you have all your documents in order, as I did, you may still have weeks of struggle to get your ID, as I did, or you may never be able to get it. In terms of registering and voting, a month is not trivial.  There are strict deadlines (for PA, you must register 30 days before the election).  

This matters because an estimated 11% of eligible voters don’t have government-issued IDs. Not surprisingly, the numbers are far higher for seniors, minorities, and low-income voters—you know, the people who have the most trouble getting their voices heard.  11% is a landslide victory in an election.

Finally, this matters because voting is not a privilege.  It’s a right.  That’s not a matter of opinion.  The US Constitution is unambiguous about it.  The 15th Amendment straight-up calls it “the right of citizens of the United States to vote.”  This distinguishes it from activities like driving a car, which are privileges; they are things you earn by learning, taking a test, etc.  Once you become 18 and a citizen (felony disenfranchisement laws notwithstanding), you get to vote.  Yes, you have to register*, but registering to vote is your right.   Impediments to that right, especially ones that disproportionately affect certain groups, should be ruled unconstitutional.

Voting and voter registration laws are deeply flawed and in desperate need of a modern makeover.  No doubt about it.  But new voter ID laws like Pennsylvania’s will be costly to taxpayers, may disenfranchise at least 750,000 registered Pennsylvanians—including nearly half of the city of Philadelphia—and target a problem that does not exist.  With the immense burden offices like PennDOT put on getting an ID, and the total lack of evidence of voter impersonation, new laws should focus on improving access, not tightening restrictions.

*Unless you’re in North Dakota.

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