Ronnie Polaneczky: Flying in the face of Joe

On July 24 , demonstrators protest the Pa. voter-ID law at an NAACP-organized rally at the Capitol in Harrisburg.
On July 24 , demonstrators protest the Pa. voter-ID law at an NAACP-organized rally at the Capitol in Harrisburg. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: August 17, 2012

MY FRIEND JOE Varsanyi Sr. died on Monday. He was 91, a decorated patriot who fought in World War II. Had he lived, this simple, honorable man who risked his life for his country would've had a very hard time voting in November's elections.

That's because Joe didn't have a driver's license. He long ago lost track of his birth certificate and his military identification. He didn't even have utility bills proving his residence, since his last residence was a nursing home where he tried to regain his strength after his cancer spread.

Without any of these documents, there would have been no reasonable way for him to obtain the voter ID that the Commonwealth Court on Wednesday reiterated is needed to cast a ballot on Election Day.

Joe was a wonderful man, and I wish he were still here. But I'm glad he didn't live to see the day when his country erected barriers to keep its own citizens from participating in a fundamental right of every American.

Because it would've broken his heart.

Supporters say the voter-ID law is a bipartisan measure to reduce voter fraud. Except none of the Republicans who supported the law could produce any evidence showing that the system, which worked fine for Joe for 70 years, had a fraud problem. Neither could the State Department, when it testified in court.

The real goal of the voter ID was made clear in June, when Republican state Rep. Mike Turzai crowed to a cheering crowd of disciples that the law "will allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." Because everyone knows that the ranks of Pennsylvania Democrats include a significant number of voters who are elderly, poor, disenfranchised and plain old unlucky - just the kind of people who have a hard time assembling the paperwork the new law requires.

Requirements, by the way, that make it the strictest voter-ID law in the country.

We will have hit a terrifying low if a man wins the White House not because he was voted in, but because opposing votes were suppressed.

Including votes from:

Those without a driver's license or a non-driver photo ID issued by PennDOT. Especially vulnerable are those whose current names might not match their birth-certificate names - like married women, for example, or divorced women who never reverted back to their maiden names.

The elderly. Men and women like Joe who don't have the mobility to trek to a PennDOT office for a voter ID. Yes, greater Philly has a lot of PennDOT sites, but some Pennsylvania counties have none at all. Elderly African-Americans who migrated here from the South are particularly at risk, because many were denied birth certificates when they were born. How do you prove you exist, when your own government pretended you never came into this world in the first place?

Native Puerto Ricans, all of whom are American citizens. The Puerto Rican government invalidated all birth certificates issued before 2010.

The poor. They have a hard enough time pulling paperwork together to obtain services they need for themselves and their families. Obtaining a voter ID requires a level of resourcefulness that many lack.

The homeless. At a news conference held Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, an advocate for Project Home told how her organization dealt that morning with a homeless, newly released inmate who had just tried to obtain his voter ID. Even though the man had a prison-issued photo ID, that wasn't good enough for PennDOT, which denied him a voter ID.

This is the part of the column where I toss a bone to those who support the voter-ID law from a purely theoretical, bipartisan point of view. So here's the bone:

If this law is so important, why the rush? It was fast-tracked and passed in March and upheld Wednesday, in preparation for November. Yet no one - including PennDOT, which hasn't hired any new workers to handle the IDs - is prepared to follow the law in a way that won't be a disgrace to democracy.

So why not take the time to get it right?

That's a pointless question, of course, since voter ID is now law. Yes, it's headed to the Supreme Court, but that's no guarantee it will be reversed. So right now, like it or not, voter ID is here. And we can't pretend that it won't be, come Nov. 6.

At Wednesday's news conference, members of the media were urged to make sure the public understood that, in no uncertain terms. So take down this number: 1-866-OUR-VOTE. That's the hotline run by the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition. It's manned right now by people who can answer your questions. Help you find your birth certificate. Arrange a ride for you to PennDOT.

They can help you make sure you are eligible to vote.

Not because Mitt Romney needs to win Pennsylvania. But because it's your right to decide whether he deserves to.


Contact Ronnie at 215-854-2217. E-mail polaner@phillynews.com. Twitter: @RonniePhilly. Blog: philly.com/ronnieblog, Recent columns: philly.com/Ronnie.

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