There is so much confusion and controversy about Pennsylvania’s voter identification law — which, as of this printing, remains in place but is under the review of Pennsylvania courts — that it is best to start with the most basic of facts: in short, the law requires that voters bring passports or Pennsylvania–issued driver’s licenses with them to the polls.
Another fact: the PennCard is a valid form of identification under a clause regarding university–issued IDs.
But once we enter the realm of opinions, subjectivity and activism, the facts become murky. Some people sign petitions online. Some people contradict each other. Some people go from door to door, educating voters. Others simply do not care. Surveying Penn, from the active to the apathetic, sheds light on how our campus copes with political controversy.
“In my eyes, it’s blatantly unconstitutional,” says Dylan Hewitt, Vice President of Penn Democrats. Hewitt and the rest of Penn Dems view the voter ID law as a calculated move designed to make it difficult for many voters to comply with ID requirements. “The right to vote is such a basic right in this country, and to try to suppress it is suppressing the American Dream,” says Hewitt. In an attempt to further its cause, Penn Dems plans on canvassing the area in an effort to educate students and West Philadelphians alike.
The group claims that this “suppression” of voting is part of a Republican political strategy. “There are people who are fine with it because it benefits them,” says Nathalie Figueroa, Penn Democrats’ Legislative Director. She makes the point that a substantial number of those expected to be turned away at the polls because of the law are most likely going to vote Democrat. Figueroa and Hewitt exasperatedly point to remarks made by Pennsylvania's House Majority Leader, Republican Mike Turzai, who said the law “will allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
On the other side of the issue stands Arielle Klepach, the Vice President of College Republicans. “Many of us are in favor of the law because it brings security to a really important area of politics…I do think it’s a very fair law,” she said in an email. The security that Klepach refers to is the issue of combating voter fraud, which Klepach views as an urgent problem. “Personally, I think it’s crazy that I need to show my ID to swipe into Huntsman after 7 p.m. but not to vote for the President of this country,” Klepach says.
She also points out that the Pennsylvania legislators who passed the law were elected fairly, and, as such, have a right to decide what laws are important to pass. “If voter fraud was really a non–issue then the bill would not have made its way through the legislature,” Klepach reasons.
The two sides also disagree over how pressing the problem of voter fraud actually is. Penn Dems argues that political resources would be better directed elsewhere, pointing to research done by The Brennan Center for Justice that Americans are about as likely to commit voter fraud as they are to be struck by lightning.
Klepach, on the other hand, contests that voter fraud is a problem, and that it is important to have a law to combat it. She notes that the Supreme Court upheld a similar law in Indiana in 2008 on the grounds that examples of voter fraud are well–documented and thus pose a threat to the election process. “It’s absolutely unacceptable and affects the sanctity of one of the most clear–cut principles that this country was founded on: one person, one vote,” she says.
Both Democrats and Republicans invoke the “one person, one vote” principle when opposing and supporting the law, respectively. So, where you stand on this law comes down to whose story you believe: is the law, as Hewitt and Figueroa argue, a means of disenfranchising people likely to vote Democrat? Or is it, as Klepach casts it, a law that demands little further attention because it addresses the real threat of voter fraud?
The University, it seems, is not in the business of choosing between such stories. Penn’s Office of Community and Government Affairs, the department that deals most closely with the ID law, says its main priority is to empower non–partisan student groups. “The administration relies on student voices to start caring about certain issues,” says Dawn Maglicco, the office’s director. The OCGA only works with student groups that are non–partisan (such as Penn Leads the Vote and the Penn Political Coalition) in order to increase civic engagement on campus.
There is no shortage of people on campus — some salaried, but most of them students — who work tirelessly to make sure that Penn students have few barriers to voting. The Undergraduate Assembly, for example, lobbied heavily in collaboration with Penn Democrats and College Republicans in order to ensure that PennCards are compliant with the ID law. Now that the PennCard is considered valid, groups like this are focusing in the coming months on making sure students are registered.
But because of the law, these groups’ work is not quite straightforward. “One of the biggest challenges for us this year is the misinformation that is circulating about the new law,” said Abby Tran, the Public Relations Chair of Penn Leads the Vote, in an email. Even among Penn students, whose IDs comply with the law, there is confusion about what is valid at the polls. John DiIulio, Professor of Political Science at Penn and ex–Director of the White House’s Office of Faith–Based and Community Initiatives, echoes Tran’s observation. “At a minimum, any such law should be refined and implemented gradually over several election cycles,” he said in an email.
The law, support it or oppose it, has by its very existence complicated the voting process and forced Penn’s voting outreach groups to allocate their limited resources differently than they otherwise would have.
If the battle on campus is to register voters who already have valid IDs, then the fight to get IDs for many Pennsylvanians outside of the Penn bubble seems more like a full–fledged war.
Mary Goldman, a West Philadelphia resident who has been connected to Penn in various ways for decades, is a self–proclaimed “furious citizen” when it comes to the voter ID law. “It’s just one thing after another,” she says as she flips through an informational booklet about the law that is as thick as a textbook and just as dense.
An outspoken critic of the law, Goldman does all she can to tell as many people as possible how they can comply with it. “The law is so onerous for everybody,” she says. Taking the time to get an ID and jump through bureaucratic hoops, she says, is often easier said than done for many Philadelphia residents.
Goldman says it is difficult for her to educate voters when the logistics of the law’s implementation are still being ironed out. In fact, the day after we talked, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation made a change to the law that required the re–printing of educational materials that she has been distributing.
On the state level, Goldman is not alone in her fight against the law. Steven Singer, an 8th grade Language Arts teacher from the Pittsburgh area, has collected over 17,000 signatures for a petition that asks the local government to not enforce the law in the upcoming election.
When told that only a handful of Penn students are protesting the law, Singer says that the climate is different in Pittsburgh. “The people who do know what’s going on are very angry about it,” he says.
Singer and Goldman are two examples of community members who have taken this law into their own hands, but the law — along with similar laws in almost 30 other states — has been drawing national attention as well. For every one of Jon Stewart and Sarah Silverman’s tirades against the law’s bias, there seems to be a complementary reassurance from Bill O’Reilly or Charles Krauthammer that the law is necessary and fair.
Generally speaking, supporters of the law think it is being talked about too much, while the law’s opposition is as vocal as possible.
Known for being centers of activism, U.S. college campuses — especially Penn’s, given its history of war protests and even a student who self–immolated on College Green in 1996 — would seem to be the breeding grounds for our generation’s Singers and Goldmans. And yet, despite widespread activism nationwide, our campus seems to be something of a blind spot — only a small segment of Penn’s population is visibly upset by the law’s implications.
“I don’t think people are freaking out about it, except for the politicos. I think maybe they should be,” says Andrew Brown, President of Penn Democrats. As to why more Penn students are not outspokenly against the law, Brown speculates: “They’re a little disenchanted with these ideas of social movements. They’ve seen Occupy Philadelphia and they think the people who do it smell bad.”
Penn Political Coalition’s Isabel Friedman sees the lack of backlash against the law as a product of how the law is framed. “Penn students identify more with national political issues than local ones,” she says. The law is often perceived as having only local relevance, and Penn students feel little ownership of their home for only four years. “It’s more Pennsylvania–specific, even though it’s not at the same time,” she says, alluding to the possibility that the law could affect the national election results.
Dan Bernick, President of the Undergraduate Assembly and a key player in the effort to make PennCards compliant with the law, has a more positive outlook on civic engagement at Penn. “Activism and civic engagement look different than they used to look like,” he says. “The evolution of new media and social media makes activism take different forms.” In Bernick’s eyes, the protests of yester–era have been transposed onto rage–filled Facebook statuses.
Bernick’s point raises a question: is Facebook activism as effective as its real–life, flesh–and–blood counterpart? Dawn Maglicco of the OCGA says, “It’s really important for this generation to ask how you translate a groundswell of support of or opposition to an idea from Facebook to policy.”
Mary Goldman and Steven Singer have their own guesses as to why more Penn students are not protesting the law.
Singer says that the hardest part about understanding the law is putting yourself in another’s shoes. “I’m exposed to a large number of people who don’t have internet or email or cell phones. It’s hard to make that empathetic jump, to imagine what other people’s lives are like,” he says. This hurdle, in his eyes, makes many think that getting an ID is a simple, quick process. It is not hard to see his statement as a critique of the insulating properties of the so–called “Penn bubble.”
Mary Goldman, the “furious citizen,” sees the issue as a generational one. “Penn students want to go work on the Obama campaign on a high level, but not do the grunt work that has to be done,” she says. Would students from the 60s and 70s be up in arms about this law? “Absolutely!” she exclaims.
“It’d be much better to be Ferdinand the Bull, under the cork tree smelling the flowers,” Goldman says, making reference to a lackadaisical character from an old children’s book, “Much better than running around all the time being agitated by our government.”
Penn is full of young, energetic people who devote themselves wholeheartedly to everything from a capella groups to Greek life. However, while some students may actively express their political ideas, many do not. We will always have our opinions, but perhaps what has changed is how they compel us to act.
Joe Pinsker is a Senior from San Carlos, CA. He studies English in the College.