In clamor over voter ID, inaccuracies gain traction

Philadelphia has become a center of vocal opposition to Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law. But some important facts have had trouble making it through the din.

Gov. Tom Corbett signed the law in March. It’s now the subject of a court challenge by the ACLU.  If the law is upheld, anyone wanting to vote in November’s general election will have to present photo ID at the polls.

Pennsylvania Republicans supported the law as a check on voter fraud. But Pennsylvania Democrats have lined up on the other side. Saying poor, elderly and minority voters are less likely to have photo ID, they have accused Republicans of trying to suppress votes, especially in blue-leaning Philadelphia.

But sometimes Democrats’ urge to blast the law seems to crowd out the goal of helping would-be voters comply with it.

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“We chose this particular backdrop for a reason, because this represents a polling place in the city of Philadelphia,” said Philadelphia Council President Darrell Clarke Monday during an event he hosted Monday in a hot school gym in North Philadelphia. It was billed as a voter-education session.

But council members who spoke spent more time complaining about the law than clarifying how people can protect their ability to vote. And much of what speakers said about the complex law was, at best, only half right, adding to the general confusion.

Their focus was on photo IDs issued by PennDOT. Most people will probably use those, but they aren’t the only form of ID that will be accepted. Other acceptable forms of identification include passports, military ID and some student IDs.

The birth certificate confusion

At least two speakers Monday said constituents without a birth certificate will not be able to vote. Getting a driver’s license or state ID does require producing a birth certificate. That has proved hard for some, such as island-born Puerto Ricans and elderly blacks born in the Jim Crow South.

But the state has promised that, by the end of August, it will start issuing a new photo ID that won’t require a birth certificate.

That possibility was never raised at the press conference.

“What I don’t want to do is confuse people. And sometimes when you give out too much conflicting information, people say, ‘To heck with it, I’m not going to bother,'” explained Clarke.

He thinks solid information will eventually reach would-be voters who need it.

“You’re going to see a blitz over the next month and you’ve seen it already if you’ve been paying attention,” Clarke said.

One speaker, Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, sounded confused when she said the many college students in Philadelphia cannot use their student IDs to vote. She’s wrong. College IDs that have an expiration date on them, as Penn’s does and as Temple’s will by Election Day, will be accepted at the polls.

Quinones Sanchez later acknowledged the error.

“It’s not mean spirited,” she said. “It’s a level of frustration because we’re that committed to the importance of the vote that we have to ensure that we go out here and do this work … the state doesn’t have the capacity to do that.”

Ever-evolving bible on voter ID

At the offices of the Committee of Seventy, the nonpartisan election watchdog, Ellen Kaplan is holding the voter ID bible being used by the coalition. She wrote it.

“I’ve rewritten this about eight times already to reflect some changes in how the law’s being implemented and I expect I’ll be changing it several more times as we go along,” she said.

Kaplan says it’s important not to focus on outrage, but on helping voters

Her boss, Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg, agrees.

“Al lot of the rhetoric, I’d say, can have the wrong effect and either keep people away from the PennDOT office or keep them out of the process or keep them from wanting to vote on Election Day if they have the right ID,” he said.

Stalberg says he spends every day thinking about how to offer the right balance of information.

For now, voters with questions can reach a voter ID hotline, where they’ll reach a real human being who will walk them through the specifics of their situation. That hotline number is 866-687-8683.

An earlier version of this story did not explain that a birth certificate is also required to obtain a PennDot ID. It also did not accurately reflect when Quinones Sanchez made her comments about student IDs.

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