Why Pennsylvania's Vote Suppressors Can Never Win

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The fight is about dignity as much as it is about the right to vote, as evidenced by the story of one family burdened by the state's new voter ID law.

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A voter in Pennsylvania's 2008 primaries (Reuters)

My mother has a favorite story she loves to tell about the perils of voting in Pennsylvania, the way it used to be, anyway. And as the state grapples with the shock of a self-inflicted wound -- a nakedly partisan voter identification law that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of elderly, low-income, and minority voters, without preventing any kind of in-person voter fraud -- she finally gave me permission on Monday to tell it. She's 79 years old now, is following closely from afar the court proceedings in Harrisburg, and figures it's time to come clean.

Growing up in Scranton, she was first eligible to vote for president in 1956, in the race between Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson, whom Ike had trounced in 1952 (and whom he would trounce again the year my mom finally made it to a voting booth). She left her house on Prospect Avenue fully intent upon voting for Stevenson. But on the way to the polling station she ran into a Catholic bishop, a Polish man she knew from the church across the street. They started talking, and before my mom knew it, she had voted for Eisenhower. In a family that worshiped Franklin Roosevelt, she never lived it down.

My mother today does not live in Pennsylvania. But I thought of her story this weekend when I heard about the story of Jacqueline Kane, who is 81, and who accomplished with her first vote back in the day what my mother could not: In 1952, with her first vote, Jacqueline Kane voted for Stevenson. Kane turned 21 in November 1951. Today, a longtime registered voter, she lives in a nursing home in Pennsylvania. Today, she is one of the people whom state lawmakers say must comply with a new voting law that imposes terrible burdens without providing any measurable benefits. Today, Jacqueline Kane is in danger of losing her right to vote.

THE VOICE OF SUPPRESSION

Last week, Pennsylvania state representative Daryl Metcalfe, the Republican from Butler County who sponsored the dubious law, went on the radio to defend it. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in a 4-2 decision, had just decided not to overturn or endorse the new law, but rather to send it back down to the trial judge with instructions to evaluate strictly whether the measure would result in the disenfranchisement of registered voters. Instead of seeing in this cautious ruling a sign of trouble ahead, Rep. Metcalfe doubled down on the ugly premise behind his effort. On radio station KDKA, Rep. Metcalfe said:

I don't believe any legitimate voter that actually wants to exercise that right and takes on the according responsibility that goes with that right to secure their photo ID will be disenfranchised. As Mitt Romney said, 47% of the people that are living off the public dole, living off their neighbors' hard work, and 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. If individuals are too lazy, the state can't fix that.

Even by contemporary standards -- even in a state where a Republican leader proclaimed publicly a few months ago that the new voting law, by disenfranchising likely Democratic voters, would give Mitt Romney the state -- this was a classless thing to say. For not only was it a slander against an entire class of Pennsylvanians who are too poor, or too disabled, or too old to have the new state-issued photo identification. It also was a shot directly at people like Jacqueline Kane and her family, who concluded that maybe now the fight against voter suppression in Pennsylvania was their fight, too.

JACQUELINE KANE'S BURDEN

On Friday, Jacqueline Kane's daughter, Robin, decided enough was enough. She had been working with other family members to ensure that her mother was not disenfranchised by the Republican law. She had been working diligently, in fact, trying to apply old mismatched paperwork to the new bureaucratic requirements, when she heard Rep. Metcalfe call her mother lazy. Here is part of what her email to the legislator said:

My mother lives in Topton, PA and is lawfully registered to vote, as she has been since 1951. But because of your voter suppression law, she is currently unable to vote. She no longer drives and her license is more than a year past expiration. She hasn't traveled outside the country in decades, so her passport is past expiration. The facility where she lives is a state-approved provider of elder care services, but they do not issue photo IDs to residents.

For the past two weeks, my sister and I have been trying to help my mother gather the appropriate documents to get the newly required photo ID. The education campaign had inaccurate information and the rules keep shifting, making it difficult for me to understand and it would have been impossible for my elderly mother to do this without assistance.

First, VotesPA and PennDOT websites said she would need to get a non-driver's photo license. To do so, she would need her social security card; an original birth certificate with a raised seal; two proofs of residency; an application; and an oath that she had no other form of ID. My sister and mother spent two days looking for her birth certificate from 1930. They found my dead grandmother's birth certificate, plus ration cards from World War II, and lots of documents of my father's service during that war. But not her birth certificate.

I returned to the websites to learn that even without a birth certificate, she might be able to get the photo ID if the state Department of Health could confirm her birth. However, my mother was  born in NY, not Pennsylvania. So, it turned out, this solution didn't apply to her. Instead, I was directed to seek a new birth certificate from the state of New York. Just when I thought we couldn't possibly get this done in time for her to vote, I learned that there is a new option for people exactly like my mom: the new, Department of State photo id for voting.

It still requires her to have her a social security card or number (which we found); proof of residency; an application; and an oath. And it still requires that my 82-year-old mother will travel by bus to a PennDOT office and hope that she has the stamina to wait in multiple lines to complete the process to get a photo ID that she needs for only this one purpose, ever. But she is determined to do so, if she is able. And she will vote against anyone who sided with you in this effort to suppress legitimate votes.

Later, Robin Kane explained to me how the family intends to try to meet the burdens imposed upon them by Representative Metcalfe and his Republican colleagues:

I live in DC and my sister works full-time and can't take my mom to do this. Of course, my mom no longer drives (or she'd have an ID!) So she will go by bus with other seniors in her elder care facility to the local PennDOT office. We will hire a health aide to accompany her on this trip because she gets easily winded since her strokes, but she doesn't use a wheelchair.

While we believe, after weeks of research, that we have the correct documentation, we have read stories of hours-long waits and misinformation among PennDOT workers. Because this new law makes no sense to my mom, she's not in a good position to advocate for herself if the workers are unfamiliar with the brand new "Dept of State Voter ID." She's also in a unique situation because she was born in NY, not PA, like most everyone else at her facility. So other people from her facility will likely need to be in a different line, and she'll be alone with her aide.

What this really means is that Jacqueline Kane is one of the lucky ones. She has a family that has the means to be able to help her in this fashion. But think of all the other elderly people out there, who won't have a health aid with them, or who don't have access to a bus, or who don't live in elder-care facilities where such opportunities exist. Those people aren't lazy, either. And yet they clearly face disenfranchisement if this law is permitted to stay in effect. It's an Orwellian scenario: To ensure voting integrity in Pennsylvania, the Republicans have destroyed voting integrity there.

POSTSCRIPT

From Rep. Metcalfe, Robin Kane received an auto-response to her email. I received no such response when I emailed him seeking comment. But, really, what's he going to say? He's already become yet another symbol that Pennsylvania doesn't want or need, a symbol of a form of governance that seeks to disconnect itself from the governed. Sometimes I think that, in the noise of all this fighting over voting rights, we forget the central truth about what's happening: Officials of one party are seeking to prevent voters of another party from casting their ballot. I don't blame Elizabeth Drew for seeing in these efforts a danger worse than Watergate.

Either Representative Metcalfe knew his law would impose enormous burdens upon elderly voters like Ms. Kane, voters who had voted without incident for years. Or he wasn't aware that his law would cause such pain and potential disenfranchisement. Either way, it's no way to run a state. What's worse is that the lawmakers who pushed the law, and the state lawyers who have since sought to defend it, have never proven, in or out of court, that in-person voter fraud is a problem in Pennsylvania. In fact, the state stipulated in court in July that there is no such fraud. "I just don't understand this," Jacqueline Kane said this past weekend.

In the end, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere this election cycle, the fight comes down to people like Jacqueline Kane and people like Daryl Metcalfe, to people who have a right to vote and people who want to make it harder for people to exercise that right. And the ripples from this fight have extended to Robin Kane and to countless other sons and daughters all over the country, people whose parents' votes now suddenly are in jeopardy. In America, at least the America we all thought we knew, there is only one way this story ends: Men like Darryl Metcalfe don't get to take away the rights and the dignity of women like Jacqueline Kane.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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