The city of Philadelphia, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and an anxious nation await a ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which on Thursday heard impassioned arguments for and against the voter ID law.
Similar laws have been struck down in some states, like Texas, and upheld in others, like Indiana, so there’s no clear indication of which way the state’s highest court will rule.
Either way it goes, advocacy groups are gearing up for a hectic election season, and a chaotic Election Day. Community organizers are knocking on doors, helping folks fill out the required paperwork, and using rental vans and private vehicles to transport people to local PennDOT centers to obtain the necessary ID.
Other groups, like the tea party-led True the Vote, are gearing up to challenge voters in certain communities, training “poll watchers” whose duty is to make sure anyone who looks suspicious to them has the proper identification. True the Vote hopes to train and dispatch one million volunteers to polling places around the nation to make sure the election isn’t somehow stolen by what they call “the food stamp army.”
At first I was horrified, thinking the massive voter intimidation effort by True the Vote and others on Election Day would surely result in further disenfranchisement, anger, lawsuits, bullying and probably violence.
On the other hand, maybe not.
Think about it: Can you really see vanloads of young, freshly-scrubbed GOP poll watchers with clipboards and cell phones descending on neighborhoods they’ve only seen from the window of the R5 train from Doylestown? Can you see them getting in voters’ faces in those neighborhoods, challenging them to show identification or otherwise explain themselves?
Here’s what actually happens: the van full of eager volunteers pulls up to a polling place in a crumbling school building in a hardscrabble neighborhood. Milling about outside the polling place are several dozen dark-skinned people those volunteers wouldn’t even sit next to on the subway. Then the volunteer coordinator points to the naïve zealots in the back seat and says, “OK, you, you and you – get out and make sure those people have ID. Tell them you’ll call the authorities if they won’t show it to you, and don’t take no for an answer. Let them know who’s boss. We’ll be back to pick you up around lunchtime.”
Think anyone is getting out of that van? Nope. Me either. And if they do, I doubt they’d still be standing there at lunchtime.
And I think the same thing holds true whether that van pulls up in North Philly, South Chicago, the Bronx or South Central Los Angeles.
No, I think the “certain neighborhoods” targeted, and the only neighborhoods True the Vote would dare try it, are those communities populated by undocumented aliens. The assumption would be that “those people” are less likely to aggressively assert their constitutional rights, and are more likely to be intimidated by an official-looking white person with a clipboard.
But that logic too falls flat. Even in those neighborhoods, the people who know they’re in the country illegally won’t go anywhere near a voting booth. Years of living under the radar has taught them to steer clear of any situation where they’re liable to be stopped and questioned, and aren’t likely to voluntarily walk into a room packed with election judges, poll watchers and political activists.
So most likely True the Vote and the other Election Day bullies will end up harassing legal voters who happen to have brown skin. They’ll be videotaped trying to intimidate Americans who speak English with an accent, and that video will make the evening news.
Comparisons will be made to the Jim Crow voter intimidation tactics of the 1960s, and mainstream Republicans will be shamed into distancing themselves from these idiots, swearing on a stack of Bibles that they acted alone and without official party approval.
Two years ago in Harris County, Texas, members of True the Vote reportedly used a number of tactics to interfere with voters – allegedly watching them vote, hovering over voters as they signed their names, blocking the lines and confronting both voters and election workers like schoolyard bullies.
Apparently, it worked well enough to encourage the bullies, who now believe they can take the same show on the road, spreading the hate nationwide.
They’re serious about this, and there’s every indication they’ll probably try it again – although I think they’ll be very, very judicious about which neighborhoods they go into. North Philly is not Harris County, Texas.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.