Mailing to retired city workers says photo ID needed

Posted: October 17, 2012

A recent mailing to 34,000 retired Philadelphia city workers includes a flier that tells them, inaccurately, that they will need a photo ID to vote Nov. 6 - the latest in a series of mishaps and oversights that might confuse potential voters.

After a roller-coaster ride through the state court system - upheld by a Commonwealth Court judge, appealed to the state Supreme Court, then sent back to Commonwealth Court - the state's new voter-ID law was put on hold two weeks ago by Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr.

He delayed the photo-ID requirements until after the Nov. 6 general election. When voters go to the polls next month, they will be asked if they have photo ID, but whether they have it or not, they will be allowed behind the curtains to cast their ballots.

The only people needing ID will be voters who have moved to a new polling place and are voting there for the first time. As required by preexisting state law, they will have to show some sort of ID, but it doesn't have to be a driver's license, a passport, or any of the other IDs specified in the new law.

So, Edgar Barrios, 63, a former city technology officer, was surprised to open his mail Friday and find a flier inside his quarterly statement from the city Board of Pensions and Retirement.

"Photo ID Required," the flier said. "In order to vote on November 6th, everyone must present one of these photo IDs," and proceeding to run through the list.

Brian Abernathy, chief of staff to the city's managing director, confirmed that the flier had been sent to roughly 34,000 city retirees.

The quarterly mailings had been prepared before Simpson's decision, were stuffed with the fliers, and were sent to a commercial mail house for bulk mailing.

Although the mail to Barrios wasn't postmarked until Thursday, it was too late to change course after the judge ruled, Abernathy said.

"We wanted to encourage people to get the ID if they needed it," Abernathy said. "Do we do the mailing and take a risk, or do we lose the opportunity to reach a large number of people who would be impacted? We decided that more information for voters was better. . . . It was a conscious decision to take the risk."

While most criticism over the handling of voter ID has been directed at the Republican legislature and governor who passed the voter-ID law in the spring, the city's mailing was the idea of a Democratic administration. Mayor Nutter has been a stern critic of the new law.

Barrios disagreed with the city's decision to proceed with the mailing. "It's a massive mistake, and I think they ought to correct it," he said. "People who don't know about the court decision may be frightened by what the city sent."

"I'm afraid people seeing this would be very confused," said Nancy Hutter, a retired attorney for City Council who also got the pension mailing. "It would have been better to leave out the flier rather than confuse people further."

Since the Oct. 2 ruling, the administration of Gov. Corbett has modified its advertising. The state is continuing to urge voters to obtain ID, while noting, briefly, that voters "will be asked, but not required, to show a photo ID."

"At first, I saw the ads and thought nothing of it," said Ben Burrows, a registered Democrat in Elkins Park. "Then I realized the continuation of the voter-ID ads was a late hit after Simpson's whistle had blown the play dead."

Most of the state's 67 counties have changed their election websites to reflect Simpson's ruling, while at least two have removed all references to voter ID.

As late as last week, some Pennsylvania Department of Transportation centers were still displaying signs saying photo ID would be required in November, but a PennDot spokesman said Monday that all signage had been removed.

"If I had my druthers, the state in particular would have been more aggressive about saying you don't need ID for this election," said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan organization active in coordinating a broad-based voter ID coalition.

"Members of the coalition who deal hands-on with the public are worried about confusion," Stalberg said.

With partial funding from the City of Philadelphia, Stalberg added, the committee is printing fliers and door hangers with a message that "you don't need voter ID for this election but you might need it moving forward."

Whether the controversy will impact the general election results remains unclear.

Several Democratic ward leaders said Monday that while they are somewhat concerned about confused voters staying home on Election Day, they have worked hard to minimize the confusion.

"At least in Philadelphia, the issue has energized a lot of people, and that may help turnout, help the Democrats," said Lou Agre, the Democratic leader of Roxborough's 21st Ward. "My committee people were outraged about it, but they also went to work about it. It made them knock on more doors and reach out to more people. . . . That work doesn't go unrewarded."

Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or

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