When voter-ID laws that would require voters to show identification at the polls began springing up around the country four years ago, it started a national conversation about the barriers many marginalized groups face when attempting to acquire a photo ID.
Locally, the price of a state-issued photo ID isn’t cheap: You need a check or money order to pay for it, and the IDs can be acquired only at the state Department of Motor Vehicles (there’s only one location in the city).
Although the controversy over voter-ID laws vanished when the proposed legislation was ruled unconstitutional, disparate access to government-issued identification remains. But a new idea that has caught on in other municipalities might be catching fire in Pittsburgh. Since 2007, more than a dozen cities have implemented municipal identification cards to break down opportunity barriers for their residents.
“One of the things we’re looking forward to is the way municipal IDs increase access for all of [a city’s] residents,” says Betty Cruz, special-initiatives manager for the mayor’s office. “If you don’t have a photo ID, by having a government-issued photo ID, this can open up opportunities.”
The mayor’s office is calling on Pittsburgh City Council to approve a feasibility study for municipal IDs that would be paid for with a grant from the nonprofit Hillman Foundation. The study would take approximately six months to complete. Implementing municipal IDs could take anywhere from one year — that’s how long it took in New York City — to four years, if the city decides to go with a more advanced card technology that could be tied to a prepaid bank card.
“I think it’s an exciting project to potentially have an ID that would unify all city of Pittsburgh residents and be able to allow residents to access the resources that we pay for and that we deserve,” Pittsburgh City Councilor Natalia Rudiak said at a Sept. 30 meeting.
The idea for municipal IDs was spurred by the Welcoming Pittsburgh Initiative, an effort to improve “quality of life and economic prosperity for immigrants and native-born residents.” In other cities, municipal IDs have served to increase access for immigrant and undocumented populations.
“Even though those cities might have started out with their municipal IDs because they have a large immigrant community or an undocumented community,” says Cruz, “one of the unexpected consequences was how valuable the card was to other groups of people, to other perhaps marginalized populations who people don’t think of but who often don’t have a government-issued photo ID.”
These groups can include senior citizens with mobility issues, veterans re-acclimating to the community and low-income residents who lack the means to afford a state-issued ID.
“People say, ‘Well, you can have a state ID even if you don’t have a driver’s license’ — well, it’s almost $30,” Cruz says. “It’s not affordable for many, and it’s also something you have to specifically go to the DMV to get.”
Today, not having a form of photo identification can mean not being able to open a bank account. But it can also lead to more dire consequences.
“There are folks who might have an encounter with law enforcement,” Cruz says. “They can’t prove they are who they say they are because they don’t have a government-issued photo ID, and the situation might take a different turn if they could just prove they are who they say they are.”
For those who already have photo identification, the municipal IDs will also offer perks like free admission to cultural institutions, prescription-drug discounts and deals at local restaurants. Some of the city’s cultural institutions, like the Carnegie museums, are already interested in being involved.
The ID can also be linked to other accounts, like a Carnegie Library card or Port Authority of Allegheny County’s ConnectCard, used for public transportation.
Says Cruz: “When you match that piece that we were hearing, that there’s a lot of people who for whatever reason don’t have a valid photo ID and the benefits of access, and then you couple that with other benefits that any Pittsburgher — even if you have a photo ID — would connect with, then it’s going to be appealing for all Pittsburghers.”