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Pittsburgh activists scramble in face of voter-ID law

"We've got a job that's so much bigger than any of us can handle."

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Paul O'Hanlon is no stranger to overcoming obstacles: As an attorney with the Disability Rights Network, he's accustomed to negotiating challenges many Pennsylvanians need never consider. But in the upcoming presidential election, he fears, voters may encounter barriers they cannot get around. And he's not sure activists will be able to prevent it. 

"I feel conflicted, I feel fraudulent to be a part of some grassroots coalition," he says. "We've got a job that's so much bigger than any of us can handle."

A new law, passed by Harrisburg Republicans this year, requires voters to present photo ID at the polls this November. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with other groups, has sued to overturn the law, arguing that it disenfranchises minorities, the elderly and others. A hearing in that case in Commonwealth Court is scheduled for Wed., Aug. 1. 

Meanwhile, organizations across the state are trying to educate the electorate about the requirements, should they be upheld.

 "You may feel a lot of different ways about the law," says Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director of the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based good-government group. "But that can't stand in the way of making sure every voter knows what they have to do."

To that end, groups statewide, have banded together to form the non-partisan PA Voter ID Coalition. But O'Hanlon isn't the only activist sweating when he looks at the calendar. 

 According to figures released by the state on July 3, nearly 760,000 eligible Pennsylvania voters — including nearly 100,000 in Allegheny County alone — may lack the ID required under the new law. 

The state is gearing up outreach efforts of its own, with plans to spend $5 million notifying voters of the new rules. Some voters have already received a letter from Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, informing them that the law "requires voters to show a photo ID when we vote. This gives one person one vote."

The ACLU has created its own flyer, entitled "Know Your Voting Rights," with information on the new law. Ngani Ndimbie, an organizer for the group, says she's distributed nearly 12,000 copies of the flyer. 

"It's sort of problematic that we're asking so many residents to take an extra precaution and run around," she adds.

Locally, some Pittsburgh groups began outreach in mid-June, largely through the NAACP's "This Is My Vote" campaign. Celeste Taylor, who leads the effort, has assembled 30 teams of NAACP members and others activists to do outreach at community events, and in conjunction with churches and other organizations. 

Taylor says it's a mostly volunteer operation; she is paid $2,000 a month by the NAACP as a consultant, through Aug. 15. Everything else, she says, is grassroots. 

"Without a national group providing resources, this is what's needed," she says.

Taylor is working from lists of Allegheny County registered voters, including those without ID. The lists, provided by the state, "aren't user-friendly," she says: Activists must match up voter names with address and phone information. Only when that work is done can the lists be used by those canvassing door-to-door and staffing phone banks. 

"Some voters have already been reached through other ways," Taylor says. But "when we get someone new that needs acceptable ID, we record their information so we can make sure we follow them through the process."

Since June, Taylor estimates, she's reached at least 5,000 voters, based on attendance at forums and the number of flyers she's distributed. But she has no idea how many of those voters have actually registered, or have photo IDs that meet requirements.

Time is short: Given the number of business days between now and the election, getting credentials for Allegheny County's 100,000 voters "puts our daily quota at 1,100," says O'Hanlon, the disability-rights advocate. That number, which O'Hanlon cited during an interview last week, will grow as Election Day draws near.

For his part, O'Hanlon is trying to inform voters in personal-care and rehabilitation facilities. Still, he says, the campaign is "a massive undertaking"; the grassroots campaigns, he says, "seem like tiny pretend efforts" by comparison.

Philadelphia has more voters lacking ID — more than 186,000, according to state figures — but the picture there is in some ways more optimistic. For one thing, Philadelphia's efforts benefit from the presence of Kaplan's Committee of Seventy. Founded a century ago to combat political corruption, the organization has an annual budget of more than $1 million a year and a full-time staff.

Kaplan says the Committee will likely spend around $200,000 on statewide voter-ID outreach though it is still crafting its plans.  

"It's a multi-pronged approach," she says.

Ndimbie, of the ACLU, says it's no surprise Philadelphia is out in front. Organizations there, she says, "are used to serving larger populations and to do whatever is necessary to serve them." 

Pittsburgh's efforts "are behind Philadelphia," says Taylor, "but I'm confident we can catch up." 

That job may be even harder than it looks. In its lawsuit, the ACLU cites an analysis by University of Washington professor Matt Barreto, who estimates that  roughly 1.4 million eligible Pennsylvania voters lack a valid ID — twice the number cited by the state. Some populations are more likely to lack proper ID, Barreto found. The elderly and the young are more at risk than the middle-aged, for example, while women are more likely to encounter ID problems than men, largely because women are more likely to change their names after marriage. 

Among those Pennsylvanians who lack a valid ID, more than one-quarter lack the documents needed to obtain one under the current rules. And based on phone surveys, Barreto reports that more than one-third of Pennsylvania voters are unaware of the new law.

The state is promising to issue an alternative ID card, for voting purposes only, that would require lesser documentation: a Social Security number and two proofs of residency, such as utility bills or an apartment lease. But that card won't be available until August, and so far, state officials have done little to notify voters about it. Secretary Aichele's letter to voters, for example, could say only that her office was "working … to develop an alternative" ID. 

"The details on the new ID are sketchy, and even top Commonwealth officials cannot clarify them for us now," ACLU-PA Legal Director Vic Walczak said in a statement to City Paper. "If this ID were made available for several years to ensure that everyone who needs one gets one, then it might be acceptable, but for this year it's too little, too late."

And in many parts of the state, even voters with the required documents — whatever they turn out to be — might face challenges acquiring the ID. Another study, this one by the New York University-based Brennan Center for Justice, found that of 10 states with strict photo-ID laws, Pennsylvania had the most voting-eligible citizens who live more than 10 miles from a state office that issues ID and who also lack vehicle access. 

Such accessibility issues are at the core of the ACLU's lawsuit and other organizing efforts. ACLU attorney Sara Rose estimates the organization will spend nearly a half million dollars on voter-ID issues this year. 

Activists say they have little choice but to make such investments, since there's no telling how courts will rule.

 "The fact is, right now it's law," says Deborah Fidel, co-convener of the Pittsburgh Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, which is focusing on educating its own constituents, particularly elderly Jewish voters, on the ID requirements. "We thought a wiser course of action was to hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

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