Pennsylvania's new voter ID law seems designed to suppress Democratic turnout. But what if the cynical legislation unintentionally helps the disenfranchised regain a shred of dignity? Can any law urging citizens to obtain official recognition be all bad?
Gina Tucker had a driver's license, but can't get it renewed due to unpaid parking tickets. She's 44 and homeless, a domestic violence survivor who - this part really stings - can't visit her son in jail because she lacks proper ID.
"Without [identification], you feel cut off, paralyzed," Tucker tells me after waiting for two hours on the Ben Franklin Parkway Monday to see a mysterious Good Samaritan who covers the bureaucratic fees for IDs.
"Having an ID," she says eagerly, "makes you feel whole again."
That sentiment is echoed at the end of the line, where 21-year-old heroin addict Justin Kelleher clutches a color photocopy of a Delaware driver's license and Social Security card he lost "in a shelter or on the streets."
The young and old-before-their-time arrive every Monday before 4 p.m. to meet "Mr. Adam," a former pro soccer player with a shaved head bearing pre-written checks to pay for these ghosts to rejoin state-sanctioned society.
"HIV clinics can't serve dying people without an ID. Methadone centers say the same thing," explains Adam Bruckner, 36, of the homeless outreach Philly Restart (http://phillyrestart.com/).
"You need ID to get a job, get housing or just to cash a check. You need ID to get an ID."
Even mom needs an ID
Philadelphia is home to 705,111 driver's license holders; an additional 325,013 people have an official photo ID, but that group includes those not old enough to vote.
Congressman Bob Brady isn't sure how many of the city's one million registered voters lack the proper documents to exercise their rights, but the leader of the well-oiled get-out-the-vote machine knows of at least one constituent needing immediate assistance: his 89-year-old mother, Enez.
"She doesn't have a license," Brady tells me, "and she lives in a building with a lot of other seniors who don't have photo ID."
So the doting son may rent a van - or minibus - to take the loyal voters to PennDot and then lunch.
"It's my mom," he says. "I gotta do it."
Brady believes the voter ID law could unfairly thwart urbanites and seniors. Ex-offenders, the illiterate, and disabled are also vulnerable to electoral exclusion.
Years ago as a Center for Literacy tutor, I worked with a man who had never had a photo ID. We filled out the forms together, I wrote the check and gave him detailed directions to the PennDot center in an unfamiliar part of the city. He finally mustered the courage but, start to finish, the process took months.
Life in a lost wallet
Bruckner began giving peanut-butter sandwiches to the homeless a decade ago, but quickly realized they craved identification more than food. Until the crowds swelled, he spent his own money on photo IDs ($13.50) or birth certificates ($10). Since 2009, he's received $150,000 in donations - enough for 15,000 IDs.
The new voter law requires the state to grant gratis IDs, but Bruckner doubts those who need the lifeline the most will receive it for free.
"You have to sign an affidavit saying you want the ID to vote," he notes. "People are scared to do that."
Gina Tucker did vote, and will resume voting once she's allowed. But most of the other 120 people in line express more pressing personal concerns - needing proof of identity to obtain housing, a job, social services.
"Without an ID, you're not free to move about the country," explains Lonnell Sharpe, a 31-year-old Delaware native in town for drug rehab.
Luther Yomblin tells me he was paid for labor but couldn't collect his money without an ID. He strikes out because he was born in Georgia. Bruckner refers him to a legal group known for helping with out-of-state birth certificates.
Jessica Oliver, 20, has been on her own since aging out of foster care, but unable to prove who she is since her purse was stolen six months ago. She desperately wants to return to her job as a King of Prussia restaurant hostess.
"Your ID is your life," Oliver says, gazing at the $13.50 ticket to normalcy with Bruckner's signature. "He basically just saved my life today."