I spent a recent afternoon in an experiment to see how long it might take to get a voter’s photo ID from the PennDOT Driver's License Center off Airport Road. I’ll tell you the results in a minute.
It’s an important question because according to Pennsylvania’s Department of State, about 31,000 registered voters in the Lehigh Valley are without a current driver’s license or state issued non-driver ID that will enable them to vote in the Nov. 6 presidential election.
Some of those folks have other official photo identification that will be accepted at the polls because they are a government employee, a member of the military, a university student or a nursing home patient or employee. All those IDs, so long as they haven’t expired -- plus passports -- will be accepted at the polls under the state’s new Voter ID law.
But let’s say half of the 31,000 people don’t have other types of acceptable photo ID. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Driver's License Center off Airport Road is the only place in Lehigh County that you can get the state-issued, non-driver photo ID, according to Jan McKnight, a very helpful PennDOT spokeswoman. In Northampton County, the only place is the Driver's License Center at the 25th Street Shopping Center in Palmer Township. The state is planning to launch another way to get an acceptable Voter ID in late August but the details have to be ironed out, McKnight said.
I arrived at the Driver’s License Center off Airport Road at 1:25 p.m. and found a packed parking lot. An employee told me that if the lot was full at that time of day, there was a chance the center would be closed at 4:15 p.m. before my number could be called.
The waiting room was standing room only with people seeking all kinds of services. I took a number and listened as numbers were called at a glacial pace.
As the afternoon wore on, the undercurrent of impatience among the crowd bubbled up. One man said he had waited for three hours on a previous afternoon and then had been told he had to come back another day because the center was closing. Sheila Garcia of Allentown told me she waited almost three hours to get a non-driver's photo ID a few months ago. “The line was out the door,” she said.
Some parents tried to calm their squirming children in front of signs that prohibited eating, drinking, smoking and cell phone use. A monitor told one person, “There is no cell phone use in here” and a customer called out, “There’s nothing in here.”
It got me thinking: If we’re going to discriminate against non-drivers to make it harder for them to vote, let’s be fair and make it tougher for everyone. Let’s say you have to be able to prove at the polls that you’ve read five opinion pieces this year from sources you disagree with. That way we’d only allow educated voters who have shown they consider arguments on both sides of issues.
Of course we’d also be able to hold voting for all of the Lehigh Valley on one floor of the Bethlehem Area Public Library.
If that modest proposal sounds too exclusionary for you, you’re in good company. Our courts have deemed voting as so central to our system of government that only under very few circumstances – like you’re convicted of a felony – can it be taken away.
Opponents of Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID law sued to have it overturned and Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson of Nazareth is expected to rule on the case soon.
One key thing to remember is this law only prevents the kind of voter fraud in which someone tries to impersonate another person to cast a vote. Such voter fraud is so prevalent that there are ZERO cases of it recorded in Pennsylvania, according to the people defending the law.
So Pennsylvania is spending millions and is prepared to bar some, maybe lots, of people from casting a ballot but can show no evidence why this is necessary. True conservatives – who believe in a less intrusive, less expensive government – should be huge opponents of such a law.
Yet many don’t see what the big deal is, pointing out that people need ID for lots of things. But they don’t allow for life’s complexities -- the Social Security card that gets stolen, the driver’s license that lapses because grandma can’t drive anymore.
In the workaholic years of my late 20s, I somehow accidentally let my driver’s license expire. For more than two years, no one, including me, noticed. Finally, a friend pointed it out and after some hassle I got it replaced. At the time, my birth certificate and Social Security card were 160 miles away at my parents' home. Was it dumb on my part? Yes. Should it have barred me from being allowed to cast a ballot? I don’t think so.
During my recent trip to the Driver's License Center, I was lucky. My number was called after about two hours – though I didn’t actually stay to get the ID -- and the whole outing, including the ride to and from the center took about three hours. But remember, people who don’t have a driver’s license are more apt to have to take a bus, which could add considerably to the trip.
In the run-up to the election as the lines at the Driver's License Centers get longer, how many people are going to give up and decide they just won’t get an ID to vote?
To the Pennsylvanians who passed and support this law, I ask this: How many Americans are you willing to deny the right to vote to prevent fraud that is so rare that Pennsylvania can show no -- zero, zip, nada – cases of people perpetrating it?