Before the voter ID trial resumed this morning, Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadephia and one of the attorneys in the case, said to me that she is struck by how much cases like this come with real stories of real people.
It reminded me of something another lawyer in another Pennsylvania ACLU case told me years ago.
Eric Rothschild, lead plaintiffs’ attorney in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case was hit with a similar observation while watching the testimony of parents standing up for their children’s religious freedom.
What he and Clarke understand is that these are not just arguments to be debated and dissected by legal minds and (manipulated for political gain), but cases with very real consequences for people in small towns and cities across the state, from the young and the old, the financially comfortable and the poor.
Today’s testimony from four plaintiffs, Tia Sutter, Danny Rosa, Joyce Block and Bea Bookler, provided poignant stories from many of those cross sections.
Sutter, a former attorney who worked as a Philadelphia assistant district attorney for more than 10 years, is a registered voter who had tried for years to get photo ID.
Sutter, 61, doesn’t drive and her only photo ID is from when she was a college student in 1978. Her Social Security card is under the name Tia Sutter. Her New York-state birth certificate is under the name Christine Sutter. She has been told that she cannot get a state issued ID because her names don’t match. “I thought I knew my legal name,” she said. “I’m not sure anymore.” To change her name on her SS card, she was told she would need a court order, which would cost $400 and would take months.
“My roots and my future are all in Pennsylvania,” Sutter said, choking up with emotion. “It’s hurtful to me that this is now a question of ‘papers please.’ If your papers aren’t in order, you can’t vote.”
Danny Rosa, 63, of West Chester is the son of a Puerto Rican woman and was born in New York. He doesn’t know why his birth certificate identifies him as Danny Guerra, his grandmother’s maiden name. But since he was a boy, he has always gone by the surname Rosa, the name of his stepfather who raised him. Rosa was the name on his night school diploma and it was the name on his Air Force honorable discharge certificate, which hangs on a wall in his living room.
“You’re proud of that?” plaintiffs’ attorney Marian Schneider asked him. “I am proud,” he said. “It’s about the only thing I ever completed.”
A regular voter, he wanted to comply with the new law. So he spent the better part of a day gathering his paperwork and making two trips to the local PennDOT driver’s license center where he waited about an hour each time. (He doesn’t drive and had to get a ride.) “I showed him (the technician) my birth certificate and he told me my name’s no good,” Rosa said.
“I served in the service for four years,” Rosa said. “I don’t do it (vote) just for kicks. It means something special to me. I think it should be important for everybody.”
Because the next two plaintiffs were not physically able to make the trip from their homes to Harrisburg, their video depositions were played in court in lieu of testimony.
Joyce Block, 89, was born in Brooklyn, the daughter of vaudevillians. She married in the 1940s. She is Jewish and her marriage certificate is in Hebrew. Her Social Security card and her birth certificate are in her maiden name, “Joyce Altman.” She never got a driver’s license “because I felt everyone was safer without me on the road.”
Since registering to vote when she was 21 – she voted for FDR – she has not missed an election. In 2010, ill and in the hospital, she was determined she was not going to miss the election and refused to vote by absentee ballot. “I wanted to make sure I voted,” she said. “And I carried and carried on until they let me take a wheelchair and I voted.”
When she heard about the new law, she had her granddaughter take her to the PennDOT center. She was told that because her Social Security card and birth certificate were in her maiden name, she could not get photo ID. She showed the technician her marriage certificate. He said he couldn’t read Hebrew.
Block has a large family and a great support system. She is politically active and complained to her state senator, who called PennDOT. When she returned the next time to the center, there were no problems. But she agreed to be a plaintiff because she wants to make sure that others without such a support system are not disenfranchised.
Bea Bookler, 94, was born one year before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing American women the right to vote.
Today, she seldom leaves her room at the Devon Senior Living Center. She spends her days reading and watching television.The only times she goes out anymore are on rare and special occasions, when her daughter will take her out for lunch. Also, she goes out twice a year to the election polls, which are next door to her home. Bookler is unsteady and shakes during her testimony and says it’s just too hard to get around anymore.
Over the years, she has lost her Social Security card and her birth and marriage certificates. While she could sign a form attesting that she has no identification and be granted a special ID used solely for voting, it would still take a trip to PennDOT, something she is physically unable to do.
“It’s too hard,” she said. “You can see I’m not exactly mobile. I get dizzy and shaky.”
During her testimony, Bookler was asked why, if it’s so hard, she bothers to go to the polls. The question seemed to confuse her. “I would never not vote,” she said.
“How proud I am to live in a country is a real democracy. And anything that prevents people from voting is taking away our democracy.
“Democracy is only real if we all participate.”
The trial before Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson will resume tomorrow at 9 a.m. Commonwealth Secretary Carol Aichele is scheduled to testify.
–Lauri Lebo, ACLU of Pennsylvania board member