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Voter ID Education
Vivian Felzer cast her first ballot for president in 1940. She went with a popular choice, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She's voted in every presidential election since and Felzer, now a registered Republican, plans to do so in November.
But when Pennsylvania's new voter ID law recently went into effect, it created a bit of a problem for the 93-year-old. She doesn't have a current, state-issued photo ID and, according to the new law, she won't be able to vote at a polling station without one.
Still, she's not opposed to the law, believing as many of its proponents do, that it could prevent voter fraud. In addition, Martin's Run, the senior living community where she resides, is planning to produce its own picture identification that can be used at the polls.
Despite Felzer's optimism, there's considerable concern among local Jewish organizational officials who fear that implementation of the controversial law could prevent thousands of Jewish seniors and other Pennsylvanians from exercising their right to vote.
In an effort to make sure that doesn't occur, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Anti-Defamation League have joined the Pennsylvania Voter ID¿Coalition, a group of more than 100 regional and statewide civic and community organizations.
The umbrella organization, spearheaded by the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based political watchdog group, is geared toward educating voters about the new requirements.¿It is not focused on challenging the law, though many of the groups involved oppose the measure.
The ADL is on record against the law but Federation hasn't taken a stand. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have filed a lawsuit to overturn the statute.
The controversial measure, pushed by Republicans in Harrisburg and signed into law in March, generated renewed debate two weeks ago when the state announced that an estimated 758,000 registered voters -- nearly 10 percent of the electorate -- lack the necessary paperwork to vote. In Philadelphia, the number is 187,000, or 18 percent of registered voters.
The issue has strong partisan implications, with Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai acknowledging publicly last month that the law was passed to help the GOP's chances of carrying the state in the presidential election.
Last week, The New Republic ran a piece titled "Will Pennsylvania's Voter ID Law Cost Obama the Election?" The author, Eric Andrew-Gee, argued that the law could make it tougher for Obama to win the Keystone State. Last time, Obama carried the state by about 600,000 votes. It is widely presumed that the overwhelming majority of the voters currently without proper identification -- the elderly, African-Americans and other minorities, legal immigrants, the low income -- lean politically toward the Democrats and the president.
Federation, the ADL and other coalition members are taking pains to stress that their voter education efforts are non-partisan and that they are working to make sure that citizens can exercise a key civil right, not to help Obama carry a key swing state. "We think it is a civic responsibility to try and encourage people to vote," said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for Federation.
Both Federation and the ADL are helping the coalition locate Jewish venues to host voter-education sessions.
Many seniors have said they don't have current forms of identification because they can't physically get to a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation driver's license center.
Zach Stalberg, the former Daily News editor who now runs Committee of Seventy, said the coalition would work to solve problems "person by person."
"If transportation is one of them, we will try to provide transportation," he added.
Nancy Baron-Baer noted that the ADL is preparing to file an amicus brief as part of the suit challenging the law. She said the legal work is separate from the group's involvement with the coalition. "It may be a bad law, but for now it is the law" and people need to be educated about it, she said.
One factor that might mitigate the impact on Jewish seniors, particularly those living in long-term facilities, is that the state has decided to let such licensed facilities issue their own IDs. Also, some seniors, especially homebound ones, vote by absentee ballot, which do not require photo IDs. Nearly all residents at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life in Montgomery County who vote do so by absentee ballot.
At a recent pre-Shabbat senior program sponsored by Klein JCC, in partnership with Federation, Friends of Stiffel and the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, only a handful of people said they lacked proper identification.
Among them was Martin Margolin, a 78-year-old Philadelphian whose driver's license expired two years ago. He cited the lack of transportation as part of the reason he hadn't renewed his license. He said he'll try hard to do so before Election Day.
Margolin, who first voted at 21, said he thinks the law was passed "to limit Democratic voting."
David Leider, a 71-year-old who was also at the Center City program, said he's in favor of the new law. "Everyone can get a ride. Older people can ride SEPTA for free," he said. "If these people are well enough to go out and vote, then they should be able to get an ID."
In a phone interview, Ted Mann, an attorney and a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said he had spent two and a half hours in line downtown to renew his driver's license, only to be told he didn't have the proper documentation. He returned a few days later with his Czechoslovakian birth certificate, waited in line a few more hours and finally had a new license.
Though he's more concerned about the law's impact on voting in the African-American community, he stressed that many Jewish seniors might not want to go through all that hassle.
"It didn't bother me, I walk four miles a day," the 84-year- old said. "Most Jews who are my age are not in that kind of shape."
Jewish Exponent intern Andrea Cantor contributed to this report.