Newly registered voter laments obstructions

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by Eric Mayes
For New Pittsburgh Courier

PHILADELPHIA (NNPA)—Lawrence Austin is now a proudly registered Democrat, with a new state identification card, intent on casting his first ballot on Nov. 6—but his road to the ballot box has been a long and rocky one.

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NEW VOTER—Lawrence Austin shows off his voter identification card. After months of struggling to get the necessary paperwork for the state ID card, Austin recently obtained an identity card from the state Department of State. It is valid through 2022 for voting purposes only. (Philadelphia Tribune Photo/Abdul R. Sulayman/Chief Photographer)

“I never voted before,” he said. “But this is affecting a lot of people, as far as living, school, medical. I’m looking at a lot of things where if you don’t vote, man, and we get a Republican president in there—things are going to be very serious.”

Austin, 58, lives in West Philadelphia, but he was born in New York City in 1954. His parents—Emma Rosario and Nathan Austin—were not married when Austin was born, and his name was recorded incorrectly on his birth certificate as Lawrence James Rosario.

That was an inconsequential fact for most of Austin’s life, the majority of which has been spent in Philadelphia.

“I moved here when I was nine years old,” he said.

He attended school here. He worked here, most recently as a cook for 15 years at the now defunct Bookbinder’s, the famed Society Hill restaurant. He has never needed identification. He now collects disability and the Social Security Administration sends him his monthly checks.

But, this year, fed up with the Republicans in Congress and in Harrisburg, he decided to vote— for the first time in his life.

“I never thought it mattered,” he said. “But I see how things are going on in life. If you don’t vote, you don’t have no rights at all, you know what I mean?”

Like many of his fellow citizens this election season, Austin now needed identification.

So in June he revived efforts to get his birth certificate.

Officials in New York State told him he should obtain a copy of his birth certificate with the incorrect name, and then petition to have it changed. But since both of his parents are dead, he lacked the documents—like his parents’ marriage certificate— needed to prove that his last name was Austin. As a last resort, he applied to the school district for his transcripts, which he hoped would include the last name Austin.

They told him transcripts would cost $13, but no one could tell him how long they would take to process, or even if they carried the last name Austin.

In the meantime, he registered to vote at the city’s elections office. That process was relatively easy. Austin estimated that it took about 30 minutes.

Then, exasperated, Austin went to the PennDOT licensing center without any documents. He had his Social Security number—not his card—and a Social Security award letter with his address on it.

He waited for several hours—his estimated wait time was between three and four hours—as the clerk there struggled to help him get a voter ID.

“The man did me a favor,” Austin said.

After more than five hours, Austin emerged from the licensing center with a state Department of State identification card.

“Someone who worked couldn’t do that,” he said. “There were so many complications.”

He estimated there were 200 people in line the day he was there. On the day of his interview, the line at the PennDOT licensing center at 801 Arch St. extended out the door of the center, which is about mid-block, almost to the corner.

It is one of five centers in the city where PennDOT officials recently extended the hours in an effort to provide greater access for residents who would need identification to vote.

State estimates suggest that 18 percent of Philadelphians—or 186,830 of the city’s registered voters— do not have a photo ID that meets the state’s requirement to cast a ballot in November. Across the state, an estimated 758,000 registered voters or 9.2 percent of all registered voters.

Since March, PennDOT had issued 7,548 identification cards for voting purposes, the majority—about 3,217 of them have been issued in Philadelphia. The state Department of State has issued 579, of that total 343 have been issued in Philadelphia.

A number of analyses have suggested that the law could have a disproportionate impact on Black and Latino voters. Numbers compiled by the Tribune suggested that 39 percent of Black and Latino active voters—as many as 152,000 and 37,000 people respectively—in Philadelphia could be disenfranchised by the law. That compared to 20 percent of White voters.

Though Austin can proudly brandish his new state ID, he was critical of the new law—and the process he had to endure.

“There is a lot of people today who probably want to vote, but don’t have no ID and don’t know how to get one,” he said.

(Eric Mayes is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Tribune. To comment, contact Eric at 215-893-5742 or emayes@phillytrib.com.)

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