The Voter ID Struggle in Pennsylvania: Losing ID Is about Losing More than the Right to Vote


VIDEO: PA Mobile Home Park Faces Displacement By Fracking Industry

37 families at Riverdale Mobile Home Park are being displaced from their homes in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, to make way for a water extraction facility for Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, or “fracking” operations. The facility will be operated by Aqua PVR, a joint venture of Aqua America and Penn Virginia Resources.

We’re taking up a collection at my office, here at the Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia, PA, for some of our radio producers and campaigners. 

For six years, we’ve believed that the right to speak means little without the right to be heard—and hundreds of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania residents have agreed with us.  We’re poor and working people producing media that tells the untold stories of people in Pennsylvania—and developing those people into leaders united to change our city and state. We’re a tight crew, so when folks are having trouble, we come together to help each other out. One young man, Marco (not his real name), is a producer at Radio Unidad, Philadelphia’s only Spanish-language community news show. Andres and Paulita (not their real names) are leaders in another immigrant rights campaign that’s been meeting since January. Even though they work hard, support families, and in many cases own homes and pay taxes–the state has unceremoniously cancelled their drivers’ licenses, saying that the Tax ID numbers they used to get their licenses aren’t proof enough of their right to live in the US. 

But they have families to support, and work to do. So they get in their cars and drive— hoping for the best. But they were stopped by the police, and charged fines of several hundred, up to a thousand dollars, for driving without licenses. They need to drive to work, to pay those fees. And they might get stopped again, and again—and their hard-earned money will go to filling the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s coffers. And that’s what gets me.

As Charlene Carruthers said in her powerful piece on the relationship between voter suppression and reproductive rights, the current fight to make sure that thousands of Pennsylvanians without ID get to vote is important—vital—to making sure that our communities get to the polls to make important decisions on the direction of our state and country. Recent data from the Pennsylvania Department of State, processed and analyzed by the labor federation AFL-CIO, shows that 20 percent of Pennsylvania voters—and 43 percent of Philadelphia voters—might not possess ID valid enough to get them into the voting booth. But we need to understand two things. 

First – when states take away ID from poor and working folks, or limit poor and working people’s access to getting ID in the first place – those people lose far more than their right to vote. They often lose their right to work, to bank without exorbitant fees, to get benefits for which they and their family qualify, and, as noted, to drive even though they’ve passed a drivers’ test. They become even more invisible in our society, and state governments and corporations profit off of their struggle to meet their and their families’ daily needs.

And second, when the state limits access to ID and access to society unless you have a valid ID, it also takes away the rights of multiple communities, in many locations in the state, from many different kinds of people who need ID for different reasons. When the electorate is divided—immigrants from citizens, poor from near and new poor, working class from middle class—everyone loses. In order to change that reality, we need to do more than re-empower folks without ID to get their chance to vote… though that matters. First, we need to frame the voter ID fight as one that unites everyone who has lost access to the tools necessary to build a dignified life–no matter where they live and who they are. We need to do the hard movement-building work of uniting poor and working people across rural and urban, race, and origin lines so Pennsylvanians are powerful enough to never lose their right to vote again.

Bringing the voices together:  What you lose when you lose your ID

After years of knitting together student, immigrant, low-wage worker, and other communities across Philadelphia with community media production, storytelling, and study and leadership development programs, we trained a team of 30 folks to canvass areas of Philadelphia that probably haven’t had a door knocked by an organizer for a little while. MMP leaders—poor and working people from across the city—fanned out in the neighborhood around 52nd and Sansom, a low-income West Philly area where the city had ordered rolling brownouts and regular closures of local fire stations in an attempt by Mayor Nutter to save money in a growing budget crisis. 

We surveyed residents on the struggles they were facing–learning about folks getting by without jobs, without healthcare, with aging relatives or young kids to support. We cared about the context: What did it mean when Philly cuts services in your community, when you’re already going through so much?

As we knocked on doors, we met one gentleman who had served time in prison, but who’d been home, back in his community, for 12 years. For all that time, he hasn’t had an ID.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has described how recent laws passed in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and a handful of other states will affect the rights of Americans to vote. But the right to vote might be the smallest thing on the minds of people locked out of society without an ID.

Lack of ID: One more blow to the poor

Many of the undocumented immigrants who came to the United States for work didn’t have ID at home, either, because their parents were too poor to secure birth certificates and other documents for them at home. When they travel to the United States for work, they don’t have the consular papers or passports that other immigrants have, and they can’t get GEDs or marry. If deported, they are more likely to be separated from their families.

Ex-offenders find it challenging to get IDs, a necessary first step to applying for and securing a job that allows someone coming home from prison to leave behind street hustles or other ways or making money. As recently as 2007, Michigan parolees were given parole ID cards with a prison photo and ID number, but, according to the Michigan Poverty Law Program, parolees couldn’t use these cards to secure state services, or exchange their ID for a state one.

One Pennsylvania group, Impact Services Corporation, has helped more than 3000 ex-offender Pennsylvanians connect to jobs and more than 1000 get the IDs they need after serving their sentences. But, according to Impact, 35,000 ex-offenders return to Philadelphia alone each year from local, state, or federal prisons. Groups like Impact are helping, but ex-offenders need more. Having an ID is the first step.

(Oh, and of course, ex-offenders have the right to vote in Pennsylvania, but if they can’t get IDs, now they really can’t vote).

Residents without ID are locked out of affordable digital access and all the deals and purchasing power online access provides.  Comcast, the cable, broadband, voice over IP phone and NBC content company, rules the roost in Philly, where it is headquartered here and serves as the major telecom provider. But in order to get Comcast service, you need to have a credit history (hard to establish without valid ID), pay a large deposit, or prove who you are at a Comcast Service Center with a social security number or driver’s license. Without online access, poor and working people also don’t have access to many of the tools that allow people to get out of poverty. It’s hard to research scholarships for school, job opportunities, and available government benefits if you can’t get online. You can’t even get a MegaBus ticket for the most affordable advertised price of $1, find inexpensive hotels or plane tickets (not that you could get on a plane or into a hotel without ID), or invest hard earned money to make it work for you.

Without ID: A shared struggle of millions of poor and working people in the US

Some of the folks in Pennsylvanis who don’t have ID are undocumented immigrants.  Some are people who’ve served their time. Others are seniors who have never needed papers to prove who they were in towns where they raised children and grandchildren.  More are folks who have reason to distrust a system increasingly interested in asking residents for papers, or folks who had ID and haven’t gotten a chance to get it renewed.  But most importantly, when State Representative Mike Turzai said that requiring voter ID would allow Governor Romney to win the state, he likely wasn’t just thinking of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; and he probably wasn’t just thinking about the top of the ticket. Pennsylvania has kept an overwhelming Republican majority in the State Senate for over ten years, and a majority Republican house since 2010, a majority they aim to increase and solidify, by isolating poor and working people from each other. 

While unemployed people in Philadelphia are primarily people of color, 75 percent of those without jobs in the rest of the state are white, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State. And according to estimates made based on the 2010 Census, more rural people than urban residents are poor (14.2 percent percent instead of 13.2 percent, and that’s just according to the stingy federal definitions of poverty.

We need to fight against this voter ID law. And we need to win. But media messages and government policies have divided us in the cities from our natural community in smaller cities and rural areas in this state and in this country. What does uniting across these geographies, and across race and color lines, look like?

Carmen Cuadrado lives in a North Philly community that the city of Philadelphia calls “blighted.” When she saw her neighbors lose their homes for pennies on the dollar, she joined with Rosemary Cubas’ Community Leadership Institute to save her neighbors’ homes. “I joined Community Leadership Institute because I knew that it was needed in the area,” says Carmen, “And I’d seen that redevelopment was just a way of moving us—the low income families—out of our neighborhood.”

After years of learning and leading at MMP, Carmen is now a member of our Executive Committee. As part of our listening and storytelling campaign, she travelled with other MMP leaders across the state to collect stories that show how much our struggles have in common. They met with residents of Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania’s Riverdale Village Mobile Home Park, 37 families that are being evicted from their community to make way for a water extraction plant that will supply natural gas fracking operations.

“Now that I own my own place… now, I’m losing it,” said Amber Daniels in the video MMP produced with this community. “For once in my life, and now I’ve got to give it up, either go live in a camper, or under a bridge. Where else do you have to go?”

In talking together, Carmen, other MMP members, and Jersey Shore leaders saw that poor homeowners in North Philly and rural trailer park communities in central PA had something powerful in common. MMP and other groups in Pennsylvania—and in other states across the country—are working to bring us together as a true 99 percent. While we must invest now in the struggle to make sure that we can vote, consider the power we will wield when thousands, millions of votes each represent an informed, powerful person united with their brothers and sisters. We are working to see ourselves as a class of people who, united, can make sure that no state government ever has the power to take away our right to vote—or to live in dignity—again. 

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