Dry run of voter ID law, get out the vote efforts
Candidates, their campaign staffs, and city officials, were bracing for a particularly difficult Election Day today as Pennsylvania voters head to the polls to cast their vote in the spring primary.
“It’s an unusually complex environment,” said City Commissioner Stephanie Singer. “I think there is going to be a lot of scrutiny of this election.”
In addition to the typical challenges voters face — which candidate to choose — voters in this primary also have to deal with the “soft roll out” of the state’s new voter ID law.
Though the law does not go into effect until the Nov. 6 election, poll workers will be asking voters for a photo ID this time in an effort to get a handle on how many lack the identification required for the fall.
“This is just a dry run,” Singer said. “You will do nothing differently.”
But, the change has everyone from candidates to volunteers paying a little more attention.
“You are going to make this happen,” Damon K. Roberts, a candidate for the state House, told volunteers at a training session for polling place volunteers Monday morning at his Dickinson Street office. “Victory needs to be on your face.”
It was crunch time and similar scenes were playing out all over the city and state. Every seat in the state House is up for grabs, as are half the seats in the state Senate.
In addition, Pennsylvania voters will choose their party’s candidates for president, U.S. senator and representative, state attorney general, treasurer and auditor general. In Philadelphia, which is overwhelmingly made up of Democratic voters, the primary often determines who ultimately wins in the general election.
Roberts is locked in a tough contest with former Youth Commissioner Jordan Harris for the 186th Legislative District, who is widely viewed as the favorite, and Timothy Hannah, a long-time community activist.
The race for the 186th is a prime example of the situation city voters face as they head to the polls. Though there is no incumbent in the race, Harris, who was endorsed by The Tribune Sunday, has the backing of the Democratic establishment — including city Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who held the 186th seat until January, and state Sen. Anthony Williams. Roberts has run for state representative and City Council before.
In addition, voters in the district will be asked to choose someone to fill the remainder of Johnson’s term in the state House. The Democrat there is Harold James, who held the seat for decades before retiring in 2008, paving the way for Johnson’s win.
The race in the 186th is just one of several hotly contested races across the city. In other races to watch include the 188th District, which pits incumbent state Rep. James Roebuck against newcomer Fatimah Muhammad. The campaign has taken on a negative tone with a political action committee attacking Roebuck, who has the support of the teachers’ union, for his stance on public education. Muhammad told The Tribune the attack had nothing to do with her campaign, adding that she supports vouchers in principle, but does not endorse the proposal now in the House.
In the 197th District, Jewel Williams, daughter of former state Rep., now Sheriff Jewell Williams is seeking her father’s seat in Harrisburg. She faces several contenders in the race: J. Miranda, Kenneth Walker and Jamil Ali. Opponents have accused to Williams of fostering confusion among voters in an effort to get them to vote for her thinking they are voting for her father. Voters here will also be asked to pick someone to fill the remainder of Jewell Williams’ seat. The choice there is between ward leader Gary Williams or perennial candidate T. Milton Street, brother of former Mayor John Street, who once served in the state House and has since served time for tax evasion.
Eighteen-year incumbent state Rep. Rosita Youngblood faces two challengers this primary season: Malik Boyd and Charisma Presley. The development at Chelten Plaza, which sparked a neighborhood controversy, had divided constituents. Youngblood opposed the project after the developer altered plans to build at Super Fresh there. Boyd backed the change, which brought a Sav-A-Lot to the plaza along with a dollar store, saying they were more in line with what the district needed.
Despite the hype, and the new voter ID law, voter turnout is expected to be low — perhaps lower than usual because of voter confusion about the state’s new voter ID law.
Voter turnout in primary elections in non-presidential years is typically low.
Singer said she’s not sure what this year’s turnout will look like.
“I have been surprised at how much anger there is over the voter ID law,” she said, adding that she hoped that anger would translate in votes. “The best way to beat this is for Philadelphians to come out and vote.”
Most expect the confusion that surrounds the new law and traditional voter apathy to reduce turn out.
“Voting here and around the country is embarrassingly low,” said Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, an elections watchdog group.
Both declined to give estimates.
There were slightly more than 1 million registered voters in the 2011 primary — 797,762 Democrats and 127,165 Republicans with 90,000 others. But, only 17.6 percent of the registered voters turned out in the 2011 primary.
Roberts was well aware of the statistics and told his volunteers the contest is likely to be close — urging them to get their friends and neighbors to vote.
“This might come down to five or 10 votes,” he said.
Stirring voters’ passions can be difficult.
Roberts portrays himself as a community crusader battling the city’s political machine.
“Some people just go along with the agenda,” he said, getting his volunteers fired up.
But, he also made sure they knew he was a Democrat, telling the group that the Republicans who control Harrisburg have a “radical right agenda.”
He used education as an example — honing in on vouchers — a hot button issue in this election cycle, in part because the political action committee Students First has poured tens of thousands of dollars into several races in south, southwest and west Philadelphia.
“If they destroy our public schools, where are our kids going to go?” asked Roberts.
In one corner, Kevin Parks had been listening as he inserted flyers into packets that would go to every polling place volunteer in the district.
As Roberts talked, Parks had difficulty containing himself.
“The private schools can turn out the kids,” he said loudly, shaking his head.
With every seat in the state House up for grabs and voter turnout expected to be low, candidates rely on grassroots enthusiasm.
“You are going to make it happen,” Roberts told his people.
He hopes to have between 160 and 200 volunteers at polling places across the district. Some of those will be the volunteers that stand outside the polling places. Some will be poll watchers, who must be certified to stand inside the polling place.
City officials will be watching closely this year.
“We understand that there may be some confusion this year with the new voter ID law that is now in place,” said District Attorney Seth Williams. “We want to make sure that no one is discouraged about going to the polls … because of that confusion.”
He promised that his office would “go after any criminal activity and prosecute it to the fullest extent of the law.”
Labor committee to hold fire safety hearings
As its spring session winds down, City Council on Thursday tackled a variety of issues from authorizing hearings on the recent deaths of two firefighters to approving plans for a trash-to-energy plant.
Council met to begin clearing its calendar as it prepares to recess for the summer. As it dealt with a number of items, a much larger one — the Added Value Initiative property assessment — was also on the agenda Thursday. The last scheduled meeting for this session is June 21.
Members unanimously agreed that the Labor Committee should hold fire safety and administration hearings in the wake of the deaths of firefighters Robert Neary and Daniel Sweeney, who died in April while battling a warehouse fire in Kensington.
“The hearings are intended to help prevent future tragedies,” said Councilman Jim Kenney, who proposed the hearings.
“It’s not necessarily to cast blame on anyone, but to review all the information … so we can prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again,” said Kenney.
Neary and Sweeney, both members of Engine 10, Ladder 7, died April 9 while battling a five-alarm fire at an abandoned warehouse at York and Jasper streets.
They were the first firefighters to die in the line of duty in the city in six years.
Also at Thursday’s Council meeting, opposition emerged to plans to build a plant that will produce energy in the form of fuel pellets made from the city’s garbage.
Citing concerns that the plant would simply burn more trash than it would turn into fuel pellets, Brady Russell, with Clear Water Action, asked Council to delay a vote for two months.
“The contracts were never reviewed by the solid waste review committee,” Russell said, reeling off a list of concerns that centered on fears that the plant would burn most of the waste. “From the green perspective, it’s only greener if the green you’re talking about is money.”
The cost to incinerate is less that landfilling, he said, but more harmful to the environment.
“In terms of global warming, it does more harm on balance,” Russell said.
The local Sierra Club also objected to plans for the plant.
Plans are to build the $22 million plant this summer in the Northeast. It will harvest recyclables from the city’s 143,000 tons of trash, then turn the remaining solids into fuel pellets that can replace coal at chemical manufacturing plants, cement kilns and electric generation plants.
Despite the protest, Council approved two bills giving contracts worth $256 million over the next four years to Waste Management and Covanta 4 Recovery for hauling and getting rid of the city’s trash. According to Streets Commissioner Clarena Tolson, the two contracts would save the city about $7 million a year. In addition, she projected that the plant would generate about $1.25 million annually in tax revenue.
Council also heard from City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who asked members to approve raises for poll workers. Council authorized hearings on how poll workers are paid.
Singer told Council that Philadelphia’s polls workers’ pay was equal to those in Memphis. She asked that Council raise their pay to prevailing wage.
“Our poll workers are defending democracy,” she said. “We ask a lot of them, and they have an added responsibility — in November they will have to enforce the voter ID law … It’s a big election. And, we expect there will be a lot attention on Philadelphia and how we conduct our elections.”
During an angry and vocal rally held outside of the Municipal Services Building Thursday morning, members of the NAACP, several union representatives, clergy, state and city legislators took turns commenting on the Pennsylvania Voter ID law.
The rally, which was hosted by the NAACP, took place before the state Supreme Court heard testimony regarding the controversial law that has been the target of opposition since Republican Governor Tom Corbett signed off on it. Opponents of the law have said it was not designed to prevent voter fraud but to disenfranchise voters who most likely will cast their ballot for Pres. Barack Obama in the upcoming election.
“This law is nothing less than a criminal offense against democracy,” said Philadelphia NAACP President J. Whyatt Mondesire. “We’re out here to let the government know that this voter identification law is wrong and based on a lie. We have not stopped fighting to turn this thing around. Despite attempts to use voter ID as a way to block the vote, we will make sure that people vote. Today, we use the voice that the NAACP has been fighting to protect for over a century.”
Referencing deceased civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Harry T. Moore, who were murdered while working to register African Americans to vote, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said the law amounts to a modern poll tax.
“This year, in this country, we have seen more states pass laws to push voters off the polls than in the past 100 years,” Jealous said. “Turning the tide, we have won in Texas and we have even won in the Republican states of Michigan and Virginia, but we find ourselves here challenging the law again. We won in Wisconsin and Minnesota and yet here we are, in the cradle of our democracy, fighting to keep the right to vote. This is not a Republican thing or a Democratic thing. It is an extremist thing. All of us should have the right to vote.”
According to a legal brief filed by the city , City Commissioners Stephanie Singer and Anthony Clark, and the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the Voter ID law would place unconstitutional burdens on more than 100,000 voters in the city. At least 186,000 registered voters in Philadelphia have no form of PennDOT identification. At least 175,000 registered voters have expired PennDOT identification. The brief goes on to state that approximately 361,000 of the city's 1,100,000 registered voters may not have sufficient identification to cast their votes on Election Day.
Opponents of the law say that despite virtually no evidence of voter fraud — the problem that the law was supposed to prevent — voter ID is necessary to protect the integrity of the ballot. During hearings in March, before Corbett signed the law, attorneys for the Commonwealth could provide no instances of voter impersonation fraud. Following the passage of the measure into law, the U.S. Department of Justice requested information to determine Pennsylvania’s compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That section prohibits voting procedures or practices that discriminate on the basis of race, color or membership or membership in a language minority. That information request was subsequently refused by James Schultz, general counsel for the Corbett administration. In a letter responding to the DOJ request, Schultz said the federal government had no authority to either request or compel the Commonwealth for that information.
“The question is why you really had to change the law?” asked the Rev. Dr. Kevin, R. Johnson, pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church, during the rally. “Did you change the law because you knew that people lack photo ID in poor black and brown communities?
“We have to vote because people died for out right to vote. We have to vote because Medgar Evers died for us. We have to vote because hundreds of thousands marched for us.”
Philadelphia’s electorate greater in 2008
With fewer than 60 days before the November 6 election, the number of registered voters in Philadelphia is lower now than it was just before the 2008 presidential election, and voter registration numbers are lagging far behind those from a similar point in 2008. In addition, there is little evidence that Philadelphia voters who need ID to vote are applying for voter identification.
According to figures from the state Department of State, there were about 1 million registered voters in the city as of September 3. State data showed 811,808 Democrats, 129,369 Republicans, 76,903 with no party affiliation and 21,442 from all other parties combined.
That compares to figures from 2008 when state figures showed a total of 1.1 million registered voters with 880,681 Democrats, 147,068 Republicans and 99,011 from all other parties in early November.
Since March, about 77,000 new voters have registered to vote in Philadelphia, said Dennis Lee, chief of staff for City Commissioner Stephanie Singer. That pales in comparison to 2008 numbers when, in just the month of September, 80,000 people registered to vote.
“It’s not on the same pace as it was in 2008,” he said. “We’re behind.”
Historically, voter registration numbers have been the figure to watch.
But this year, being registered to vote isn’t enough. Registered voters must now also have a photo ID to cast their ballot on November 6.
State estimates released earlier this year suggested 186,830 Philadelphians lacked the identification need to cast a ballot. Across the state, that number ballooned to 758,000 registered voters.
PennDOT does not track the number of applications for voter identification.
However, according to PennDOT spokeswoman Jan McKnight, 6,661 voter IDs have been issued since March when Gov. Tom Corbett signed the new law. The vast majority of them — 2,823 — have been issued to Philadelphia residents. She cautioned that that figure was for voter ID cards only — voters may also use a valid driver’s license to vote.
In addition, the Department of State has issued 299 of its voter IDs, which were first available August 28.
McKnight said the department does not track turnaround times for either identity card.
“We do not have a tracking mechanism in place,” she said.
Turnaround could become a crucial issue as Election Day nears.
Anecdotal evidence suggests times vary widely from a little as an hour to as much as a several months, depending on what kind of ID the applicant is seeking and what documents they have.
“A lot of people are frustrated,” Lee said. “But, they are taking the necessary steps to get their ID.”
He related the story of Philadelphia voter, Lawrence Austin, who started the process of getting his ID in June and just received it this week.
“It took him a while, even though he was registered,” Lee said. “It can be a long process and it can be a frustrating process.”
Lee urged voters to persist.
“We have to really press and pick up the pace,” he said. “In order to get the masses out to the polling place, it’s going to be a massive undertaking.”
He also assured Philadelphia residents that if they get to the polls their votes would count.
“We’re going to do everything possible to make sure their vote is counted,” Lee said. “Even if they don’t have ID they can still go to the polls and use a provisional ballot. Don’t allow the voter ID to intimidate you.”
Approximately 39 percent of active, African-American voters in Philadelphia — more than 152,000 people — lack state-required photo identification needed to cast their ballot on Nov. 6, according to Tribune calculations, based on numbers provided in a report released this week.
That figure compares to about 82,000 — or about 20 percent — active, white voters who lack proper identification.
The data appears to bolster claims that the new law violates the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“It’s about impact. Does this law have a differential racial impact [forbidden in the voting rights act] and this study is a piece of hard evidence that it does,” said City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who is in charge of overseeing Philadelphia’s elections.
Numbers provided to the Tribune showed a grand total of 868,648 active voters in the city. An active voter is defined as a person who has voted within the last four years.
About 393,000 of that total were Black.
The numbers were smaller for other ethnic groups. Among active, Latino voters, a group of about 93,000 people, about 37,000 of them faced the possibility of being denied the right to vote because they lacked ID. The majority of the remaining active voters — roughly 319,000 out of 413,000 — were white.
In total, the study, released Wednesday at a press conference at Bright Hope Baptist Church, found that about 280,000 Philadelphia voters lacked proper identification.
That is approximately one in three Philadelphia voters of all backgrounds.
The report was compiled by Tamara Manik-Perlman, an analyst at Azavea, a geospatial software firm based in the city; and Tom Boyer, a computer programmer and former journalist. The two broke down the numbers provided by the City Commissioners’ Office on a precinct-by-precinct basis.
Estimates of how many Philadelphians and Pennsylvanians could be hurt by the law vary widely, but nearly everyone agrees that minorities, the elderly, the poor and students are going to be kept from the ballot box in the largest numbers.
Projections go as high as 362,000, a figure published recently in the Huffington Post. Nearly all are higher than state authorities projected in numbers released last month. At that time, the state Department of State suggested that 186,830 registered voters — about 18 percent of the population — lacked the necessary paperwork to vote.
Manik-Perlman said she set out to map the voting precincts were voters were most likely to lack a photo ID as required by the state. Her research was based on city voting files and U.S. Census data, and an examination of data in each precinct in the city.
She stressed that her figures were projections, because voters can choose whether or not to report race on their registration forms. Many do not.
“We have a sense for each ward and division,” she said. “But, we don’t actually know for each individual what the pattern is.”
The Tribune compiled those numbers into citywide totals.
On a precinct-by-precinct basis, the highest concentration of precincts where voters lacked identification fell in neighborhoods in University City, West Philadelphia and the precincts on both sides of Broad Street in North Philadelphia, small portions of Germantown, chunks of South Philadelphia west of Broad, and slices of Southwest Philadelphia down to Essington.
“For predominantly African-American neighborhoods, it looked like there was about twice as many ID problems than there were for mostly white neighborhoods,” Boyer said. “It’s a very substantial difference.”
The law, which has been challenged in a suit filed by the NAACP and the ACLU and several other groups, is under review by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who is expected to rule on it next week. Both sides have said they’d appeal the ruling all the way to the Supreme Court.
J. Whyatt Mondesire, head of the state and city chapters of the NAACP said this week that the law — touted by supporters as a way to stop voter fraud — was actually a “voter suppression” tactic.
“It was based on a lie,” he said. “Gov. [Tom] Corbett is a liar; so are his Republican cronies in the state legislature. There is no voter fraud in Pennsylvania.”
Two city commissioners have been fined by the city’s Board of Ethics for accepting larger-than-allowed campaign contributions. A political action committee tied to the Laborer’s Union has also been fined. Also, a new City Council member has been spared a fine for accepting campaign contributions above the legal limit.
Commissioner Stephanie Singer has been fined $5,000. Commissioner Anthony Clark has been fined $1,000. Laborer’s District Council PAC was fined $1,500. The city’s ethics board waived fines for Councilman Bobby Henon because of his cooperation with their investigation.
Settlements in each case reveal the minute detail required by the city’s campaign finance law.
The city’s campaign finance law sets the limits on how much a candidate can accept — individual donations are limited to $2,600, and donations from political organizations are capped at $10,600.
According to a recently released report from the Ethics Board, Singer’s campaign committee, the Friends of Stephanie Singer, accepted $2,100 more than legally allowed from Daniel Singer, $2,600 more than allowed from David Singer, $5,199 from Liz Kaplan, and $50 from Gregory Harvey.
Campaign officials discovered the illegal contributions during an audit in September, noted the board’s report — past the June 16 date required by law.
In Daniel Singer’s case, he made a $2,600 donation that was incorrectly recorded as $500. He then made an additional $2,100 donation at the campaign’s request.
David Singer made a contribution of $5,200 with a check from a joint account believing it would be attributed to himself and his wife, Diana Kapp. However, because she failed to sign the check along with her husband, the contribution had to be recorded as coming from him exclusively.
Kaplan made a $2,600 donation, then submitted two more checks: one for $2,600 and one for 2,599 in her husband’s and son’s names, but the funds came from her account, and so were illegal.
Harvey gave two donations of $1,000 and then paid $50 to attend one of Singer’s events. Later he was asked to give another $600, which he did, thereby exceeding the legal limit.
Singer’s campaign organization must pay the fines by July 31.
Clark’s campaign committee — the Committee to Elect Anthony Clark — took $12,000 from a political action committee called Genesis IV.
According to the ethics board’s report, Clark’s campaign refunded the money, but failed to report the payment or the refund in its post-election paperwork.
Because of the refund, a portion of the fine against Clark’s campaign was waived. However, it must pay fines totaling $1,000 by July 31.
Henon accepted $500 more than the legal limit of $10,100 from Steamfitters Local 420 PAC and $1,000 more than permitted from the Bricklayers PAC.
According to Ethics Board findings, Henon discovered the excess contributions before election, reported them and returned the money to both groups. So, the Ethics Board waived the fine.
The Laborer’s Union was cited for giving too much to Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and council candidate Bill Rubin. The union’s political action committee gave Blackwell’s campaign $1,900 over the limit and $1,000 more than was legal to Rubin.
Blackwell’s campaign refunded the excess, but not until January 2012, when the union requested its overpayment from Rubin’s campaign as well.
So, it was fined.
Because of the PAC’s cooperation, fines were reduced from $1,000 for each incident to $750 per incident, which must be paid within two weeks.
Critics of the state’s new Voter ID law are getting louder and urging Philadelphians to get ready for the Nov. 6 presidential election now.
“This law … disenfranchises Philadelphians — so the way to defeat this law is to make sure that Philadelphia gets out and votes in every election,” said City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who is part of a growing effort to raise awareness about the law. “One of the reasons we have this law is that we’ve gotten out of the habit of voting. The more we vote, the more the governor, whoever the governor is, is going to respect us.”
Singer, who is part of a growing effort to raise awareness on the issue, is making two television appearances — one this week and one next week — to discuss the law, which new data shows hits Philadelphia harder than it does the rest of the state.
Data released last week estimated that 18 percent of Philadelphians — or 186,830 of the city’s registered voters — do not have a photo ID that meets the state’s requirement to cast a ballot in November.
The numbers, part of a report released by the Pennsylvania Department of State, found that about 758,000 voters across the state lacked the necessary ID. That translated to 9.2 percent of all registered voters.
“I can only speculate that it’s higher in Philadelphia because we have a decent public transportation system,” Singer said. “You don’t need a driver’s license to exist.”
The new figures reignited the debate that preceded the passage of the law in March.
With the law in place, Singer is urging voters to think ahead and get their IDs as soon as possible, noting that while November seems far away, it’s right around the corner.
The process to get the required documents varies but can be lengthy, she said. Getting the state ID, provided by PennDOT, requires a birth certificate — one directly from the state that includes a raised seal. The cost for that can vary depending on state of birth as can the length of time required to receive it. Some reports have estimated that it can take 13 weeks to receive a birth certificate. The election is 15 weeks away.
While Singer urged Philadelphians to make sure they have the ID needed to vote, others are urging Gov. Tom Corbett to delay implementation for a year.
“Every voter in Pennsylvania needs to know what the new law requires,” said Barry Kauffman, Executive Director of Common Cause PA, who is part of a coalition of advocates calling for a delay. “Four months until the presidential election in November is a very short time frame to reach what we now know are hundreds of thousands of voters who will actually need to get photo identification in order to vote.”
The law has been controversial from its inception, with critics arguing that it disenfranchises minority, older and younger voters. Singer said the specific demographics of who has proper identification would probably be released by the state with week.
Supporters said the law was needed to stop voter fraud.
Critics however, were given ammunition in their argument when state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said the law will “allow” Mitt Romney to win the state in November, according to a report.
“(The) Voter ID … is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” Turzai told a group of Republicans in late June.
Two law suits have been launched to block it — the first is scheduled to go to court on July 25.
In an effort to get young people to the polls in April’s primaries and in November’s general elections, Rock the Vote launched its national voter registration drive Friday at the National Constitution Center.
The event took on special significance this year as Pennsylvania voters grapple with the impact of the new statewide voter identification law.
“They’re making it harder to vote,” former Gov. Ed Rendell told the crowd of more than 100 students from 16 to 18 years old. “They’re doing this because they want to make it harder for you to vote, so the special interests can continue to run the country.”
He noted that only 23 percent of registered Pennsylvania voters voted in the last election, which earned the state a rank of 33 out of 50.
The new state law and the fact that new national election rules allow political action committees to accept unlimited donations have changed the political landscape.
“There is only one way to counteract the influence of all that money,” Rendell said. “And that is if every simple, ordinary American gets out and votes.”
The state’s voter ID law will not affect the upcoming primary.
“On April 24, the old rules are still in place and everyone should vote,” said City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who oversees Philadelphia’s elections.
Singer noted that anyone who registers by Monday will be eligible to vote on April 24.
“It must be postmarked Monday or in our office,” she said.
After that, the state’s new Voter ID law will kick in, so in the November general election voters will need to present a state approved photo ID to poll workers before they are allowed to cast their ballot.
“It must meet state requirements,” she said, urging voters to log on votepa.com to make sure their identification would be valid.
Voters without identification can receive a free state ID card and any local PennDOT licensing center.
Anyone with questions can call the city commissioners office, Singer said, urging young people to take the plunge and vote.
“Don’t be intimidated,” she said.
The Republican-controlled legislature approved the bill, saying it would cut down on voter fraud. Rendell said that during his eight years as governor “there was no evidence of significant voter fraud across the commonwealth.”
The registration drive took place the same day that President Barack Obama’s campaign was also registering voters across Pennsylvania.
Many opponents of the state’s Voter ID law, which passed just last week, see the move as a Republican maneuver to derail Obama’s re-election bid.
“They want to make sure that Barack Obama is a one term president,” said state Rep. Ron Waters, after the bill was passed. “This measure violates not only the Constitution, but our own state constitution that says elections must be free and clear, and without government interference. This is the same as instituting a poll tax, or requiring literacy tests and will have a detrimental impact on voters.”
Similar measures already face lawsuits in several other states.
City Commissioner Stephanie Singer gave a two-hour workshop on Jan. 14 at 1606 Chestnut St. on how to become a committee person or member of the board of elections.
“People paid attention,” she said. “I used to teach college and I know full well what its like to teach when people had stopped paying attention.”
Singer said that two hours is a long time to listen to a presentation in a stuffy room but those who attended the event stayed with her through the course.
“I think the people of Philadelphia are civic minded and I think Philadelphians want to make their neighborhoods and their Philadelphia a better place,” she added.
Although students learn about civics and how governments work in grade school, Singer noted there is always more to learn.
“So much of what makes democracy work is cultural and happens in between what the written rules are,” Singer said.
As an example, Singer points to local leaders in the community whom elected officials often refer to in making local decisions. These leaders have a constituency which, depending on their numbers, can influence the result of elections.
“The elected officials don’t really have time to listen to the concerns of every constituent, there are just too many,” Singer said. “So what elected officials do is pay attention to local leaders.”
Deputy Commissioner Tracey Gordon is responsible for voter education and outreach and is known for her activism in the Southwest community where she resides.
“It [the event] was actually historic, the first of its kind and our office partnered with the Philadelphia chapters of the National Organization of Women [NOW] and the Coalition of Labor Union Women,” said Gordon.
“What was really surprising was the amount of people we had and their interest in just understanding learning about [the political process],” she added. “Most people don’t know that the poll workers are elected,” said Gordon.
A coalition of voting rights advocates – including many of Philadelphia’s state legislators – has called for a state and federal investigation into the fact that the names of many registered voters were missing from poll books Tuesday, which, they contend, resulted in voter suppression.
“What happened here in Pennsylvania and in other states, Ohio, Florida and in many other states is a national disgrace,” said Babette Josephs, Democratic chair of the state House state government committee. “We’re suppressing the vote.”
Though the Philadelphia group, which has largely made up of Democrats, was pleased with President Barack Obama’s victory, they remained concerned about the process - citing the unusually high number of provisional ballots cast because the names of registered voters appeared to be missing from voter rolls in Philadelphia and across the state. They also voiced concerns about other irregularities across the country.
“We would be here win or lose, because the process is what counts,” Josephs said.
She added that she intended to formalize her request for an investigation with a letter to state Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane. She’d also like to see the federal Department of Justice investigate nationwide.
The House state government committee will be holding hearings on the matter on Nov. 14, she said. Josephs was joined by members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, and members of the Philadelphia Black Clergy at a press conference on Friday morning at the Laborers Local 332 Headquarters in North Philadelphia.
Several legislators said they saw trouble at the polls first hand.
One was state Sen. Shirley Kitchen, who is also the ward leader in the 20th Ward, who said the names of more than 175 voters who turned up at the polls were not recorded in the election rolls. They were forced to vote on provisional ballots, and Kitchen said she was still unsure whether they had been counted.
“No one has called me from the [city] commissioners’ office to tell me how they intend to solve this problem,” she said.
Her concerns come at a time of turmoil for the city commissioners, who oversee the city’s elections. Just this week, two members of the three member board ousted former chair Stephanie Singer and named themselves co-chairs.
“They have a coup and the person that is responsible – is she responsible?” Kitchen asked. “The person we could have asked questions is not there. That does not make sense.”
A call to co-chair Al Schmidt on Friday was not returned at Tribune press time.
The head of the state legislative Black caucus said there were too many improprieties to ignore.
“Something doesn’t smell good,” said state Rep. Ron Waters, adding that the coalition, formally called the Pennsylvania Voter Protection Coalition, concerns involved voting rights for everyone and members of both parties. “This isn’t a Black caucus movement. This is a movement for all voters.”
Though the state has not yet released voter turnout figures, anecdotal evidence and initial reports suggest that voter turnout was very high. Early reports by the Associated Press suggested statewide turnout as high as 70.
That is extremely unusual. Turnout for the 2008 presidential election was 64.2 percent.
Advocates credited anger over the state’s delayed voter ID law as the reason.
“Turzai was the star,” Josephs said, referring to a remark made earlier this year when Republican state Rep. Mike Turzai said the state’s voter ID law would help keep Obama from winning.
“We voted in such large numbers, it was disheartening at the end of the day to find out so many voters had obstacles to their right to vote,” said state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown.