Pennsylvanians' path to voter ID not without glitches

Viviette Applewhite, 93, got her identification - after a wave of media publicity about her case.
Viviette Applewhite, 93, got her identification - after a wave of media publicity about her case. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 05, 2012

With the arrival last week of the Pennsylvania Department of State voter ID card, state officials say it should be possible for every eligible voter to obtain poll-worthy identification.

Possible does not always mean easy.

The new voter ID has been officially described as a "safety net" for people who cannot obtain all of the documents needed for a traditional nondriver license. Those include people who never had a birth certificate or can't produce a marriage license to verify a name change, for example.

But the card isn't valid for any purpose other than voting, and you can't get one without swearing that you have tried every other avenue to get a secure ID.

For most people, that means at least one previous trip to a Department of Transportation office.

"We call this an exhaustion requirement," for both legal and metaphoric reasons, said Witold "Vic" Walczak, the ACLU lawyer who is fighting the state's voter ID law in court.

For some, the process of obtaining regular PennDot IDs should be easier than it was in April. PennDot has allowed clerks more discretion, and linked up with the Health Department to electronically certify Pennsylvania birth records.

For the most extreme cases, the new ID is available as a last resort.

In the first two days the card was available (Tuesday and Wednesday), 87 were issued in Philadelphia and 57 elsewhere in the state, according to the state. Since March, the state has issued 6,119 nondriver IDs to voters.

But for the thousands of registered voters who still need ID, the only option is a trek to PennDot - and all the headaches that often entails: long lines; multiple trips; frustrating bureaucracy; and, since by definition the people who need these IDs don't drive, just getting to a PennDot office.

PennDot IDs are not the only acceptable identification at the polls. Valid passports, military IDs, nursing home or school IDs with expiration dates are among the documents that will be accepted.

Marian Berkley, 83, has had two hip replacements and walks with a cane. Arthritis makes it difficult to bend her knees, and she needs help stepping onto stairs or curbs. A volunteer from the Senior Law Network gave her a ride to the Huntingdon Valley PennDot office on Thursday.

Berkley was expecting to get a Department of State ID because she couldn't find her marriage certificate. But the clerk told the volunteer, Sue Heckrotte, that Berkley had "pieced together enough pieces of the puzzle" to qualify for PennDot's traditional nondriver ID.

Although she was at PennDot for only an hour and had Heckrotte's help in hearing the clerks and getting to and from the windows, the trip wore Berkley out. By the time she got back to her living room in Philadelphia's Logan neighborhood, she nearly collapsed in her chair.

Another older woman walked into the Arch Street office on Tuesday afternoon. She saw at least 20 people standing in line to get a number, and stood there for a minute leaning on her cane and the wall. "I'll come back," she said, slowly retreating toward the door.

PennDot says it is trying to adapt to customers' needs and eliminate the need for multiple trips. But some solutions have caused new problems.

PennDot's ability to verify state birth records electronically might save some people $22 and a visit to the vital records office. But it will cost them at least a week and another trip to PennDot, and it might make it impossible to certify the "exhaustion requirements" needed to get the last-resort voter ID.

Voter registration can also be handled directly at PennDot. But for those who register elsewhere, there can be a lag time before PennDot is able to verify their voter eligibility. At the Arch Street office last week, numerous customers were given a "Notice of Exception" slip saying that their voter ID application could not be processed. They were given a phone number to call the Department of State for more information.

"From my understanding, that number hasn't been too helpful," said Jordan Thomas, a Voter ID Coalition volunteer who said one person could not get through for help on the number given. Thomas said the coalition helped several people call elections officials in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, who then sent information along to the clerks at PennDot.

Voters were also told that it could be up to 30 days before their voter registration was verified and then they could return to get their ID cards with the proper paperwork.

Officials at PennDot and the Department of State said they were unfamiliar with the "Notice of Exception" and said voter registration should not take more than a few days to process.

Muriel Silva, a full-time volunteer at the Voter ID Coalition, said the agency receives about 50 requests for help in any given week. "We're here to educate the overall public, not walk individuals through the system. But how do you not?" she said, pointing to the litany of issues she has seen so far. They include:

A blind man who "believes he has some of those documents, but he can't see them. He needs someone trustworthy to come in and see."

A man recently released from jail who had no documents at all. "We had to start from scratch, find out if he ever had a Social Security number."

People who have unpaid tickets from 15 or 20 years ago, who are just finding out they have been penalized. "So not only can they not get a driver's license, but neither can they get a nondriver license."

A woman who said she was born in a city in South Carolina, but there's no record of that city. The coalition referred her to a law firm for assistance.

In Snydersville on Wednesday, a 105-year-old woman had to wait for hours because PennDot computers were unable to fathom her age. According to the Pocono Record, PennDot workers finally processed her application by hand and gave her an ID. In PennDot's system, it seems, anything over 104 does not compute.

Voter ID Guide

Registered voters must show one of the following in order to vote on Nov 6:

A Pennsylvania driver's license or nondriver photo ID issued by PennDot, current or no more than 12 months past its expiration date.

A current U.S. passport.

U.S. military ID that includes expiration date or specifies that it does not expire. Military dependents' ID must include an expiration date no earlier than Nov. 6, 2012.

An employee photo ID issued by federal, state, or local government.

A current photo ID from an accredited Pennsylvania college or university, with photo and expiration date.

A current photo ID issued by a Pennsylvania care facility, such as a personal-care home, assisted-living residence, or long-term-care facility. It must have an expiration date.

A voting-only ID, issued at PennDot, for individuals who can prove their birth date, Social Security number, and Pennsylvania residence but are unable to provide the official documents required to obtain other ID.

Questions? Call the Department of State's Voter ID Hotline at 1-877-VOTESPA (877-868-3772) or go to

Call the nonpartisan Committee of Seventy's hotline, 1-866-OURVOTE (866-687-8683) or go to

Contact Jessica Parks at 215-854-4851 or

Inquirer staff writer Samantha Byles contributed to this article.

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