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No ‘Poll Tax’ This Year in Pennsylvania

Arlene Holt Baker at Philadelphia My Vote My Right event

Arlene Holt Baker at Philadelphia My Vote My Right event, September 2012

I’ll never forget my up-close encounter with vote suppression—and it’s the reason I’m so pleased today that a judge in Pennsylvania ordered elections officials there not to enforce a new voter ID law. That means Pennsylvanians who can’t show a photo ID when they go to the polls can still vote a regular—not a provisional—ballot.

My encounter with vote suppression was years ago, when I was a little girl and wanted a new pair of shoes. You can’t get new shoes now, my mother told me, because she had to save the money to pay her poll tax. That’s how important the right to vote was to my mother—she knew it was a sacred right that people had fought and died for and she was not about to treat it as anything less.

Voter ID laws like the one adopted in Pennsylvania, which the judge’s order postpones from taking effect until after the November election, are nothing more than the poll taxes of a new era. It’s estimated that more than 785,000 Pennsylvania voters don’t have the type of photo ID the law requires—and getting it can cost money and time many people just don’t have. Even if photo IDs are given for free, other forms of ID—like a birth certificate or driver’s license—are required to get one and they do cost money. And low-income people paid by the hour and senior citizens suffer horribly if they have to wait in long lines for IDs.

That’s what happened to 80-year-old Jean Foreman. She spent four hours last month in a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) office in Pittsburgh in her second attempt to get a photo ID. You see, when she was born, hospitals didn’t keep records of the births of black babies, so she had no birth certificate.

Ms. Foreman got help from a strong coalition of the AFL-CIO and several community partners who provided volunteers to help register voters, assistance in getting voter IDs, as well as legal assistance at a My Vote, My Right voter ID event, one of two I attended in Pennsylvania in the days before the Sept. 25 National Voter Registration Day. I was so proud of our partners such as the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, our constituency groups, including A. Philip Randolph Institute, and my union sisters and brothers who came out to help people get their IDs, including former Pittsburgh Steelers player Nolan Harrison and, in Philadelphia, former San Francisco 49ers Ron Davis.

For now, at least, my mother would be happy to know that every eligible voter in Pennsylvania can exercise that sacred right. And, in the process, let’s hope they elect leaders who have the decency to protect the right to vote.

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