A Problem for Democracy in Penn’s Woods


Moving back into Pennsylvania after a 27-year absence has been mostly pleasant, given the obvious difficulties involved in getting rid of stuff and transporting the remaining stuff to a new (smaller) home. Sure, I had to pay sales tax on my small utility trailer a second time because I could not produce a receipt from New Jersey proving I paid the tax when I registered the trailer there. Logic does not satisfy bureaucratic requirements, especially where money is involved. New Jersey will not register a vehicle without seeing to it that sales tax is paid, but who can find the receipt shortly after having moved? Oh well, states have their little “gotcha” rules for people moving into them, and this one got me for only about twenty-five bucks.

Much more disturbing is Pennsylvania’s odious voter ID law, passed by the Republican dominated legislature to try to give victory in the state to Mitt Romney. See Gil Smart’s interesting column about the law with its intended and unintended results here. What will be the consequences of repressing Republican votes and well as Democratic ones? Is it even possible that local election officials will let familiar white adults vote anyway, despite their lack of acceptable identification? What kind of mess might Pennsylvania find itself in?

When my wife and I went through the rather complex process of getting Pennsylvania driver’s licenses and registering our vehicles, I discovered a requirement that troubled me immediately, because of the new legal linkage between having a driver’s license and being allowed to vote. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) will not accept cash in payment for a driver’s license (nor credit card, either, but that’s another matter). Only a personal check or a bank check is acceptable. So, what’s the problem? My wife and I just wrote our personal checks and got our licenses. Paraphrasing Gil Smart, we might ask, “How many people on your cul de sac don’t have personal checking accounts?”

But stop! Have you ever been in a check cashing store? If you have to ask, “What’s that?” or admit you wouldn’t even know where to find one, the PennDOT policy is not likely to trouble you much, unless you forget to take your checkbook when you go to get your license. Many poor people don’t have bank accounts. Hence they don’t have personal checks. They cash their pay or assistance checks at the check cashing store, which takes its cut for the service. They also pay their utility bills there. Well, what’s the problem? If they don’t have bank accounts, they can just get money orders to pay for their Pennsylvania driver’s licenses. Yes, but for how much? You see, they must first get to the official PennDOT place for obtaining a photo-ID license, which may entail using public transportation, getting a ride from a friend, or paying for taxi service. Then they must wait their turns to learn the exact cost. Then they must leave and go somewhere to get a money order (and pay for it). Then they must return to the PennDOT place and go through the whole waiting process all over again. Is there any shortcut? I don’t know. Perhaps there is. Maybe not.

I don’t know that there is any direct connection between PennDOT’s refusal to accept cash in payment and the new voter ID law designed supposedly to cure the non-existent problem of in-person voter fraud but really to suppress the vote in economically poorer communities, especially “urban” (read, “non-white”) areas. PennDOT’s policy may be long-standing and may have been instituted for reasons completely unrelated to voting. Intended or unintended, however, the result seems to me to be an even harder time for the poor to exercise their right to vote.