Have you ever bullied a PennDOT employee into giving a man the free ID that he deserved? Until Wednesday afternoon I would have said, “No.” More on this later.
Wednesday, April 18 was Pittsburgh’s voter ID action, held at noon at the Smithfield Street PennDOT Driver’s License Center in downtown Pittsburgh. The action was organized by the Protect Our Vote coalition and modeled after the event held in Philadelphia shortly after the voter ID law was signed by the governor.
Driving down to the rally, I wasn’t expecting much other than what we put in the media advisory: a set of people getting free IDs, advocates holding signs, and a press conference. But it has been said that one has be an optimist to do the work of a community organizer. Perhaps that’s why I thought that PennDOT would be far more prepared to respond to the demand for free, state-issued, non-driver photo IDs for voting purposes. At the very least I figured, since our coalition of organizations and activists had been aggressively advertising for one and a half weeks, PennDOT would respond by putting their most polite, seasoned, and trained staff to work that day to prove us wrong.
…Did I mention that I’m an optimist?
On the day of the action people seeking free IDs for the purpose of voting each filed into the DMV with an advocate. So why would someone need an advocate to get a free non-driver photo ID? Because more than a month since the law passed, PennDOT employees were not trained, were not courteous, and were not ready.
Here are just a couple examples of misinformation from PennDOT employees:
* Two people were forced to pay for their non-driver IDs because their IDs had not yet been expired for a year. So, while their IDs would be more than a year past expiration on November 6th and thus invalid for voting, they had to pay for IDs on Wednesday, April 18th.
* A couple from Wilkinsburg who had lost their non-driver photo IDs were turned away. These citizens of the commonwealth (both currently unemployed) were told that they could not get a free ID for voting purposes because they had lost their previous IDs.
I personally helped a man who had been turned away for no reason. My conversation with a PennDOT employee went like this:
Me: I’m sorry, could you explain why this gentleman can’t get an ID?
PennDOT: The IDs are primarily for people who have never before had an ID in Pennsylvania.
Me: He needs this ID to be able to vote in the November election and he has all of the required documents…
PennDOT: There are a number of other IDs that one can use to vote in the November election. Student ID, state employee ID…
Me: [To the person I’m helping] You’re not a student are you? An employee of a college or university? A member of the US armed forces?
Slightly embarrassed, exhausted Pennsylvanian: Um, no.
We went on like this for a little longer before the PennDOT employee finally let the man go through. At this point I was certain that a new PennDOT training manual must include a picture of a dragon guarding a treasure and a caption that says, “When a Pennsylvanian asks you for a free ID for voting, remember that state issued IDs are precious. Always think: WWDD? What would a dragon do?”
I left the rally with a stack of intake forms and a furrowed brow. On the drive back I was fuming. Why were they making this so hard? Why weren’t they ready? And if that’s how I felt, I can guarantee that the people who came down to get voting IDs also felt…taxed. Certainly emotionally, some physically, and for a good number, financially.
– Ngani Ndimbie, ACLU-PA Community Organizer