Getting to voter-ID centers a hardship for low-income elderly

Posted: August 04, 2012

State officials and low-income housing agencies are stumped about how to get registered voters to out-of-county PennDot photo and licensing centers by Election Day.

While advocates in Philadelphia and elsewhere rail against basic obstacles facing residents in acquiring proper identification to vote, some counties don't even have Department of Transportation offices to serve those would-be voters.

"Transportation to the PennDot centers is an issue," Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, who runs statewide elections, said this month. "We plan to get with all the agencies we can."

Nine counties in Pennsylvania lack full-service PennDot photo and licensing centers, and officials are sometimes misinformed about where their closest full-service photo center is.

In Perry County, outside Harrisburg, director of voter registration Bonnie Delancey said her office had "not received any requests from any of the registered residents that they needed to get to Duncannon."

But though Duncannon is within the county, it isn't where the right PennDot facility is. Informed of the fact, Delancey said PennDot had been unclear in its instructions.

"You can't run some of these people in their 80s and 90s all over the place," Delancey said. "You've got to make it somehow convenient for the people who don't have this photo ID."

The Duncannon PennDot center produces IDs for individuals with a camera card - obtainable only from a PennDot facility in another county.

Delancey was not the only one to relay such information.

A representative at Episcopal Commons, a low-income housing agency for Perry County seniors and disabled people, cited Duncannon as well when, in fact, the nearest ID center is 271/2 miles away in Cumberland County, a 45-minute drive away according to Google Maps. (PennDot's site puts the distance at 18 miles.)

Jeannine Matulevich, executive director of the Perry Housing Partnership, said, "In an area where public transportation is pretty terrible - in fact, we don't have any - having transportation is important."

Though Cumberland County has a PennDot photo and licensing center, residents there face similar issues with public transportation, said resident Mary Parks. Parks lived in Cumberland without ID for four years and now works at the county's aging and disabilities office.

"I never got my license because I grew up in Philly and could walk or take SEPTA to get wherever I needed to go," Parks said. The PennDot location in Carlisle is not along a bus route, she said, leaving those without a car to walk or pay for a "prohibitively expensive" cab ride.

Data provided by the state list up to 758,000 registered voters who may not have at least proper PennDot ID. The state's numbers are suspect, however, because of problems the state encountered comparing PennDot and voter registration databases. An Inquirer analysis of the database for Philadelphia found that those numbers may significantly overstate the problem, as many of those counted by the state as not having PennDot ID say they actually have it.

Department of State spokesman Nick Winkler said he did not think it was an "undue burden" on voters to get transportation to the PennDot centers.

Ten states now have strict photo ID laws, and more than 10 million eligible voters in those states - including nearly 2.3 million in Pennsylvania - live more than 10 miles from their nearest state ID-issuing office open more than two days a week, according to the Brennan Center. Nearly one million voting-age Pennsylvanians lack access to a vehicle, the report found.

The Pennsylvania Department of State believes transportation is the voter's responsibility, spokesman Ron Ruman said.

"Public transportation, churches and clergy groups, senior-citizen homes, are all organizations that can help voters get their ID," Ruman said.

Under the new law, personal-care homes are allowed to produce their own ID. Care homes choosing not to produce their own ID must assist a resident in obtaining the right ID from PennDot or face possible citations, Winkler wrote in an e-mail.

Joan Myerson Shrager, who works with students from Germantown High School, said that even in metropolitan areas with good public transportation, the burden is tough for old and young.

"Every one of the 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds who I work with do not have cars or driver's licenses," Shrager said. "They're not like their suburban counterparts that have cars and are taught by their parents to drive. And they certainly do not have enough spare change to be able to take transportation. I've seen kids who eat their first meal of the day at the after-school program. I ask them, 'Is there food in the fridge at home?', and they say no. So these are the kids you are going to send off on a wild-goose chase?"

Certain door-to-door public transportation, such as the Shared Ride Program, will take senior citizens from their homes to a photo center free or for significantly discounted rates in many counties, according to PennDot's website.

Dave Trout, executive director of Community Transit of Delaware County, a Shared Ride program, said PennDot had directed all providers in the program to take voters older than 65 to the PennDot centers, no matter how out of the way. Typically, shared-ride services reserve the right to deny trips to customers whom they cannot group with others, to save costs.

For the general public, the trip to PennDot will cost the general fare, "anywhere from $25 on up," Trout said.

Shared Ride services offer discounts for seniors and the disabled, but Trout said no there were no discounts for voter-ID services for the general public.

The story is similar in Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties. Bucks residents can use Bucks County Transport, Chester residents have Rover Transport, and Montgomery residents have TransNet. All are Shared Ride programs targeted to help the elderly and disabled.

Joanne Kline, director of the Office of Aging and Adult Services in Montgomery County, said she worried that even the elderly were not taking advantage of the services.

"My biggest concern is that I'm afraid many folks may not have voted in the primary and November may be the first time they show up and realize they don't have the right ID," Kline said.

Kline said it took hours to take her elderly, blind mother to their closest PennDot center and get the right ID for the November election.


Contact Clara Ritger at critger@nd.edu.

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