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Pa. Voters Battle Bureaucracy Ahead Of ID Law Ruling

Beverly Mitchell shows off her new photo ID card outside a Philadelphia DMV office. She decided to get the card in case a Pennsylvania court rules to allow the enactment of a state law that requires voters to show photo ID in order to vote.
Pam Fessler/NPR
Beverly Mitchell shows off her new photo ID card outside a Philadelphia DMV office. She decided to get the card in case a Pennsylvania court rules to allow the enactment of a state law that requires voters to show photo ID in order to vote.

The first sign that getting a new ID isn't going to be easy for Beverly Mitchell and Kathleen Herbert comes before the pair have even left their downtown Philadelphia senior center. As they wait for a ride to a nearby Department of Motor Vehicles office, they get the news: The van that was supposed to take them is broken.

Herbert and Mitchell are going to the DMV because they want to make sure they will be able to vote this fall. Depending on how a Pennsylvania judge rules on the state's controversial new voter ID law, they might need to show a valid photo ID before they can punch a ballot.

The court is hearing new testimony this week, and the judge has until next Tuesday to decide whether to block the law, which the state's Supreme Court has ordered him to do if he thinks any voters will be disenfranchised.

Thousands of people in the state are scrambling to get their photo IDs, not waiting for the judge's decision. For many, including Mitchell and Herbert, the process is a struggle.

Battling Bureaucracy To Get To The Ballot

Mitchell, 68, has to renew her expired ID. Herbert has a current ID but needs to update the address. She's 65, has multiple sclerosis and uses a motorized wheelchair. She's not happy about this new law.

"I think it's stupid," Herbert says. "Folks that have been voting all their life, like me, shouldn't have to go through this."

But, for now at least, she does. Eventually, another van is called, and the 9:30 planned departure time becomes more like 10:40.

"I think we can start boarding," says Angela Brown from NewCourtland, the nonprofit that runs the center and is helping low-income seniors get their ID.

"Thank you Jesus," Mitchell says.

The ride is uneventful, but when the women arrive at the DMV and open the door, it's a shock: At least 200 people fill every available seat. Another 50 or so stand in the aisles or are crammed up against the wall. Parents hold squirming children. No one looks happy.

"This is crazy," Mitchell says.

Herbert and Mitchell are given forms to fill out but aren't quite sure what to do with them. At 11 a.m., Mitchell is given an estimated wait time of 39 minutes. Herbert's estimated wait is 1 hour 38 minutes. Both guesses prove overly optimistic.

No one knows how many people in Pennsylvania don't have the correct ID, but at the very least, it's in the tens of thousands. The state has tried to make the process easier by loosening the rules, but some say that has only added to the confusion.

Nothing Like Controversy To Get Out The Vote

Sponsors of the law — all Republicans — say the obstacles are overstated. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe said in a radio interview last week that anyone who wants a photo ID can get one.

"We have a lot of people out there that are too lazy to ... get up and get out there and get the ID they need," Metcalfe told the host.

He and other Republicans say photo IDs are necessary to prevent voter fraud, though the state acknowledged in court that fraud is not a serious problem.

Democrats and civil rights groups say they think the real reason the law was enacted — a reason Republicans reject — is to make it more difficult for poor people and minorities to vote.

What the controversial ID law has done already is energize people to work even harder to register voters and get them to the polls.

In Lancaster, volunteers were recruited at an NAACP voter ID clinic to help people navigate the new law. Lancaster resident Paul Culbreth says that if anyone was trying to suppress the vote, it might have backfired.

"It's a boomerang effect," Culbreth says. "They threw it out there, and now it's coming back to haunt them."

How the ID law will play on Election Day remains to be seen, but at the DMV, Herbert and Mitchell say there's no way they won't vote this year.

After almost two hours, Herbert's number is finally called. She's surprised when the clerk tells her she'll have to pay $13.50 to update her ID. Voter ID is supposed to be free. After NewCourtland's Brown intervenes, the clerk offers another option that is free.

Half an hour later, Mitchell is called. When the clerk asks her to smile for her photo, she says, "Smile? I've been here for more than two hours."

But within minutes, Mitchell is smiling. She's done.

"All right, you are empowered to vote," Brown tells her.

The women get back on the van and arrive at the senior center more than four hours after they were scheduled to leave. Herbert says it wasn't too bad, except she missed bingo — and lunch.

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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