Five years ago, under former Gov. Dick Thornburgh, two Project VOTE workers were arrested in a state agency office for trying to register voters. Yesterday, after settlement of a suit stemming from 1986, registration began legally in scores of welfare and unemployment offices across the state.
In Philadelphia, it turned into a kind of mini civil-rights celebration. Lewis unveiled the program, mandating that anyone seeking assistance at any of the state's 89 unemployment offices and 102 welfare offices be given the chance to register to vote. The last day to register for the May 21 primary is April 22.
"This is a way to register the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised," declared Lewis, who, at Gov. Casey's behest, is urging the legislature to pass other measures to lower barriers to registration.
Harris Wofford, secretary of labor and industry, said the occasion reminded him of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's rallying cry in Washington in 1958, when King declared: "Give me the ballot, and we will finish the job." The first thing people need, Wofford said, is self-confidence that they can participate in the democratic process.
The program could represent a leap forward in Pennsylvania, which ranks 39th of the 50 states in terms of percent of eligible voters who are registered. A greater percentage of eligible voters are registered in Alabama than in Pennsylvania. Officials said they didn't know how many people might register in the agencies but said that two-thirds of the state's low-income adults were not registered.
"Four and a half years ago," said Sandy Newman, executive director of Project VOTE, "Pennsylvania made headlines when officials had registration volunteers handcuffed and jailed. (That action) struck at the very heart of the Constitution.
"Now, Pennsylvania is making headlines for a very different reason - it has come a very long way. . . . We are reaching out to people who for too long have been frozen out of the democratic process."
Under an administrative order from Thornburgh, registration was prohibited in state buildings - even after nine federal court orders had permitted such activity in other states. In 1986, Chuck Haynes, a Project VOTE volunteer who was arrested and charged with defiant trespass for trying to register voters in Erie, said Thornburgh was "insensitive to the poor, and he is interested in freezing out the poor when it comes to registering them."
Thornburgh's press secretary countered that agency registration disrupted office work, that most voters register by mail and that the administration was worried about the privacy of people who visit the agencies seeking help.