Quest for free ID from Pa. has its complications

With the passage of its voter identification law last week, Pennsylvania promised free photo ID cards to residents who don’t already have them.

Advocates opposing the new law say the state isn’t actually ready to come through on this promise. They say PennDOT hasn’t adequately trained its staff to handle the potential influx of voters seeking to skip the ID’s usual $13.50 fee.

Chester’s Takiyah Jennings helped proved this point Wednesday at a PennDOT ID center in Center City Philadelphia.

“When I went in there to talk to the lady, she told me that I still had to pay, and I told her I wasn’t paying, and she’s like ‘you have to pay’ and I’m like ‘I’m not paying,'” Jennings said.

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Jennings did end up walking away with free ID — but only because of the support she received from the advocacy groups who had gathered outside PennDOT’s Arch Street office.

This left some to wonder.

“When advocates aren’t gathered to guarantee and protect people’s right to vote, how is the right to vote being protected?” said Jennine Miller, spokeswoman for the Protect Our Vote Coalition.

Even though Jennings did get her ID, opponents of the new law say there are still many hidden costs.

“Unfortunately it’s not for free — the time associated with getting it, the cost to travel here … but most importantly, you have to get supporting documents to get the driver’s license — which may be a birth certificate or other document — and you have to pay for that,” said state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, D-Philadelphia.

To get ID, you may meed ID

Here’s where the process starts to get tricky and, for many, resemble a chicken-or-egg nightmare. In order to vote, you need an official photo ID. To get one issued from the state, you need a Social Security card and a birth certificate. To get the former, you need the latter. If you attempt to get a birth certificate, you’ll be asked for $10 — and to show your official state ID.

Without it, wannabe voters will have to produce two proofs of residence and secure testimony on the behalf of an “official requestor.” This can be a family member with ready access to identification, or it could be a person such as Michele Levy.

She’s an attorney for the Homeless Advocacy Project, a nonprofit organization that fights for the voting-rights of homeless people.

“It’s extremely difficult for our clients to get ID —especially when you have older people, born in the South, with midwives, a lot of them have not had registered births,” Levy said. “And so in order to get the ID, it’s almost impossible.”

Even if the Homeless Advocacy Project is able to secure a client’s birth certificate, Levy says, it’s the firm that incurs the $10 dollar charge, not the client. She says even that amount is too high for those living purely on government welfare.

“It shouldn’t be on this tiny nonprofit to get birth certificates so that people can vote,” said Levy. “Their ability to vote shouldn’t depend on us.”

State officials maintain that requiring ID at the polls reduces voter fraud. They say that over 99 percent of eligible voters already have identification.

Cost estimates vary widely

For its part, PennDOT representatives say the department is “prepared and ready to help” voters get through the rule change.

Both sides disagree on the exact amount the new initiative will end up costing taxpayers. The state believes it will be about $1 million; opponents estimate the cost at between $4 million and $11 million.

Pennsylvania’s April 24 primary will be used as a trial-run for the new law.

Voters won’t officially have to show ID until the general election in November.

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