“No ID? No vote!” These were the words that Fern Leard heard when she tried to vote last Tuesday in Lackawanna County. The voter ID law had been suspended for this election, but it seems someone had neglected to inform her precinct’s poll workers.
Or perhaps they were just confused. Under the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, any first-time voter at a precinct needs to present ID. Fern was indeed a first-time voter at that precinct, but the list of allowed ID’s under HAVA is much more expansive than the ID’s deemed acceptable by the state’s voter ID law, and includes a variety of photo and non-photo IDs.
So Fern had brought her voter registration card, but after presenting it was told she could not vote because it was not photo ID. Her protests fell on deaf ears, as did her request for a provisional ballot, which, under both the PA voter ID law and HAVA, is to be provided to any voter without ID. Instead, she was shown the door.
She wasn’t the only one. On November 6, the Election Protection 866-OUR-VOTE hotline phones were ringing off the hook. In the hotline command centers around the state, staffed by the ACLU and several other ally organizations, reports came in from hundreds of individual citizens and poll monitors all over the state that voters were being turned away at the polls or forced to use provisional ballots because they did not have ID. No sooner would the claim be filed and a lawyer dispatched to address it, the phone put down, then it would ring again with a new complaint.
Marcia Hatchett of Delaware County called the hotline when poll workers at her precinct told her ID would be required and her college ID was not sufficient. The first poll worker Marcia encountered made this claim. Then, as if the woman’s left-brain didn’t know what her right-brain was doing, she handed Marcia a flyer that contained a list of acceptable ID’s, and there on the list was “college ID”.
The voter ID law would have in fact accepted a student ID from any state-accredited institute of higher learning as long as it had an expiration date. Marcia’s did. The HAVA for first-time voters at a precinct also include student ID.
But this was irrelevant, as the state voter ID law was not in effect, and Marcia was not a first-time voter at the precinct. She pointed this out to two other poll workers, demanding they allow her access to a voting machine as well as an apology for trying to deny her right to vote. Instead, she was shown the door. “You need to leave,” she was told by a poll worker pointing an accusatory finger at her.
Marcia called the Election Protection hotline, which encouraged her to return and try again. The second time around a poll worker told her she was in the poll book as a first-time voter and would have to show photo ID – a misstatement of the federal law. Marcia reminded them she had voted at this precinct in every recent election, but they refused to allow her in without photo ID. “Do you want to vote?” they repeatedly asked of her, as if her failure to passively comply with their unlawful requirements was what stood between her and the voting booth. Determined to cast a ballot no matter what, she showed her driver’s license, only to be refused admittance because the address did not match the one on her registration – another miscarriage of the law, which only requires a current address on the non-photo ID’s of first-time voters.
Eventually Marcia’s protests wore them down and she was allowed to vote. The same was true of Melissa Hobday Motley, who was only permitted access to a Montgomery County voting machine after she started to video the poll workers who were denying her entrance.
Melissa had been voting at that precinct for 10 years but had recently changed the name on her voter registration to match her official ID in order to comply with the PA voter ID law. The law, if it goes back into effect, will require all voters to have a state photo ID with a name that is closely matches the name on their voter registration. This is a particular issue for women who have changed their names due to marriage or divorce.
Although Melissa had added her husband’s name after her maiden name on her voter registration, the update was not listed in the poll book. Instead, there was a star next to her name and she was being required to show ID, which she had not brought because she knew the voter ID law was suspended. She said she saw stars next to many names.
Anecdotal reports from voter and poll monitors indicate that many people were incorrectly categorized as first-time voters at their polls this year.
“What is the role of the government and elections officials on election day? Isn’t it to facilitate voting – not obstruct it?” asked Fern. After being curtly told “No ID? No vote!” despite showing her voter registration card , it was a fair question. She was with her 17-month old twins, both of whom have health problems; her son was crying loudly. You’d understand if she had other things on her mind. But Fern’s anger about her difficulty voting three days ago was still palpable.
“I went back in there, and when the poll worker asked for ID again I took her picture. She asked `what was that for?’ and I told her `Because I think people should know what voter suppression looks like.’ Another poll worker, or maybe it was the judge of elections, came over at that point and corrected the woman and told her that a voter registration card was valid ID for first-time voters.” Fern was allowed to vote.
“They messed with the wrong person. I’m educated. I know my rights. But I have friends who told me similar stories. Think of all the people who didn’t know their rights and weren’t allowed to vote.”
–Emily Cleath, voter ID organizer, ACLU of Pennsylvania