In preparation for Election Day, Edith Finkelstein checked with every resident on her floor to ensure that they had valid IDs. She lives at CASA Farnese, a subsidized low-income housing building at 13th and Lombard streets for older adults — one of the groups potentially most affected by Pennsylvania’s voter identification law.
With the exception of one man who told her not to interfere in his life, each person said they understood the law and would be ready in November.
This law “prevents many older people — older black people especially — from being able to vote,” Finkelstein said. “An older black person born in the South might not have a birth certificate and might not be able to vote.”
The Pennsylvania law, one of many such laws passed around the country this year, is the target of litigation filed by civil rights groups who say the identification requirements unfairly discriminate against minorities, the poor and the young.
Democrats say Republicans passed the law in order to suppress voting among these groups, which generally support Democrats.
Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican, lent credence to the Democrats’ argument when he said the law would allow Mitt Romney to win the state. Republicans say the law was meant to combat voter fraud, although there has been little evidence of that in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Voter Identification Coalition, which includes the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, has obtained a list from the city commissioner’s office of registered voters in the Philadelphia area who could face problems in casting a ballot because their identifications are expired or they don’t have a driver’s license.
“We are approaching this in a non-partisan manner,” said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for Federation. “Our concern is that people who want to vote should get to vote.”
Schatz said the list included a large number of Jewish seniors in Northeast Philadelphia, especially in areas like Rhawnhurst. Coalition volunteers are canvassing such areas and calling people on the list to ask if they have necessary identification, or need a ride to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to obtain an ID. Schatz said people seeking identification have faced longer than normal wait times at the PennDot offices.
“They rushed to implement this law, and it seems like PennDot was ill-prepared to issue the IDs,” said Schatz.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia plans to send letters to rabbis in the area offering guidance about how to engage congregants on the voter ID law.
“Critics of this new law charge that many people, especially the poor and the elderly, either do not have ID that is acceptable under the new law or have no way of securing such ID, either because of mobility and/or financial issues, or the lack of or inability to obtain a birth certificate needed to apply for a government-issued photo ID. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the Commonwealth is struggling to prepare the public for implementation of the law by Election Day with the potential result of disenfranchising many voters,” the letter states.
Rabbi Avi Winokur of Society Hill Synagogue said he plans to raise the issue during his Rosh Hashanah sermon. Congregants who were upset about the law approached Winokur and told him that they planned to start a grass-roots effort to help people vote.
“I almost never speak about social issues in the synagogue unless I have a group of people who are willing to take action in concert with my sermon,” Winokur said.
The Society Hill congregation is comprised mostly of Democrats, but also has many Republicans, he said. Winokur said both parties often only reference larger principles, such as the right to vote, when it is to their benefit.
“It’s very understandable when someone’s own political persuasions are more compelling than the larger principles,” Winokur said. But he added that opposition to the voter ID law should transcend party politics.
During his Rosh Hashanah sermon, Winokur said he’ll focus on Jews’ “love affair with American Democracy and how unique it is compared to our other Diaspora experiences.” He will link that relationship to the importance of a person’s right to vote.
“Laws that we know tend to decrease” election participation, said Winokur, “ought to be anathema to Jews.”