If you’re poor, voting can be expensive.
Niki Ludt remembers getting her driver’s license.
“You know,” she tells me over the phone, “When I went to get my driver’s license my mother said, ‘Oh, your birth certificate’s in the china cabinet drawer,’ and I went and I got my birth certificate, and she had my Social Security card that she handed me and she probably drove me over to the licensing place and wrote a check and paid for me.”
Niki Ludt is the director of the Face To Face Legal Center, a Philadelphia non-profit that offers free legal services to residents living below 150% of the federal poverty level.
She has worked with low-income clients for 23 years.
For most teenagers, getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage.
“But for a lot of our younger clients, they’re from very dysfunctional families — if they were actually even with their family and not in foster care,” she says. “So they don’t necessarily have that kind of documentation.”
It’s a problem Adam Bruckner knows well.
Every Monday afternoon since December 2002, Brucker has stood on Vine Street in Philadelphia’s Center City, armed with a clipboard and two checkbooks. At four p.m. two lines begin to form. One line receives food; volunteers serve up to 300 plates each week.
The other line needs help getting ID.
Bruckner is the founder of Philly Restart, a nonprofit he created to help Philadelphia’s poor and homeless get the legal ID they need to start new lives. While other volunteers serve food, Bruckner writes checks to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and the Division of Vital Records — state agencies that charge a fee to produce photo IDs and birth certificates.
In 2013 alone, Philly Restart helped over 5,000 Philadelphia residents get legal ID.
On a Wednesday morning Bruckner carves out some time to take my call.
He calls Philadelphia “a huge, poor city.”
“It’s crazy how many people we serve a year that are unique customers,” he says. “It’s not the same 100 people coming back every week.”
There are many reasons why low-income Americans lack legal ID. Young adults aging out of foster care programs often need help locating vital records. Adults fleeing domestic abuse are often forced to leave documents behind. Americans who were born at home or delivered by midwife can lack birth certificates.
Even if they were delivered in hospitals, many older African-Americans born in the South don’t have birth certificates. Ludt describes one such client.
“She was actually born in a hospital, but I’ve come to learn that many times African-American births were never recorded by the state, and I don’t know if that was the case with her or if the document was just lost,” says Ludt.
Unexpected disasters can also leave people needing vital documents. At one point, Ludt and the Face to Face team were asked to help secure nine birth certificates for a family whose home was destroyed by fire.
Life without a Photo ID
As the debate over voter ID laws rages across talk radio and social media, supporters of voter ID often post lists of everyday activities that require a person to show ID: Open a bank account. Get on an airplane. Fill a prescription.
These lists are played like trump cards in every discussion. How, the skeptics ask, can people who supposedly have no ID do these things?
The short answer is: They don’t.
The clients who come to the Face to Face Legal Center or stand in Bruckner’s Monday lines don’t have bank accounts. They need an ID to get access to Social Security and pension benefits, and a safe place to keep their money.
Face to Face regularly posts flyers in the local pharmacy because, says Ludt, “a lot of times people might find that whatever the new prescription is they have, they might be required to have ID to get it.”
Bruckner chuckles at the mention of airplanes. Sure, he agrees, you might need a photo ID to board a flight, “but you’re poor and you don’t get on planes…”
Ludt says for her clients, travel means “going from one part of the city to the next, maybe hopping a bus to visit some friends or relatives in another state. But for the most part, their world is within their community.”
The price to break out of that world is a legal ID. Some of the clients in Bruckner’s Monday afternoon line need an ID to sign up for job training.
“You can’t just walk into MacDonald’s and get a job without an ID,” says Bruckner. “You can’t cash a check even if they hire you, you know, without an ID.”
Lawyers, Fees and Circular Traps
In 2008, Ludt had established a monthly birth certificate clinic at the Face to Face Legal Center.
“I saw the ever-increasing need for people to have legal identification to access many different services and benefits,” she says. “And how hard it was for them to get it.”
On the first Saturday of every month, Ludt and a team of volunteer law students offer free legal help to low-income clients who need certified copies of their birth certificates. Funding from the Villanova Law School’s Pro Bono Society, the St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church and other local groups pays the client’s application fees.
It can be a long, complicated process. The first hurdle every client faces is what Ludt calls “the circular trap” : most birth certificate applications require the applicant to submit a photo ID — and in most states, getting a photo ID requires submitting a birth certificate.
Many states permit attorneys to order birth certificates on their clients’ behalf if the attorneys submit their own photo ID, but this assumes poor clients somehow have access to a lawyer, in addition to money for the application fee.
If the client is lucky enough to find an organization like Face to Face, they can clear that first hurdle.
“One of the beauties of the clinic is not only that we have the financing for it, but that I can sign the applications,” Ludt explains.
If the client was born in another state, more hurdles await.
Fees and documentation requirements to obtain birth certificates vary wildly from state to state. Florida charges $9.00, while Delaware charges $25. New York City, Missouri, Tennessee and South Dakota require the application be notarized. California demands applicants include a signed and notarized sworn statement.
Adam Bruckner used to handle out-of-state applications at Philly Restart.
“So I would have to go on the websites and find out what the expense was and every state’s got a different requirement, so some states you can fill out a form, some states you have to send in two [forms]…”
He now refers clients needing out-of-state birth certificates to Philadelphia’s Homeless Advocacy Project.
Once the application is completed and sent, the wait begins. Kentucky boasts a 5–7 day response time. Rhode Island warns applicants to expect a 6–8 week wait.
Even when the birth certificate finally arrives, it can still be rejected.
Ludt recalls what happened when she managed to get a North Carolina birth certificate for one of her older clients.
“Normally these records are typed,” she explains, “and because this man was in his 50's it was an older one that had been handwritten and I guess the original paper was green.”
When the client submitted his birth certificate, the PennDOT clerk rejected it, saying it was forged.
Ludt wrote a letter to PennDOT explaining the handwriting, the unusual color of the birth certificate and where to find the official seal. When her client returned to the PennDOT office and submitted both the birth certificate and Ludt’s letter, the PennDOT clerk rejected it again.
This time the clerk claimed his lawyer had forged it.
Ludt was forced to contact PennDOT’s Risk Management Department and fax copies of the birth certificate application, the cancelled check paying for the birth certificate, and the birth certificate itself before PennDOT would accept the document.
The clerk could be forgiven for being suspicious. According to a report by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, as of the year 2000 there were more than 6,000 entities — “State, county, city, townships and others” — issuing over 14,000 different versions of birth certificates.
Those figures don’t even include the many ‘souvenir birth certificates’ issued to proud parents by hospitals. These documents, usually bearing the footprint of the infant, have no legal value.
A Great-Great Grandmother vs. Voter ID
On March 14, 2012, Pennsylvania joined the wave of states passing new laws that required voters to show a government-approved photo ID at the polls. Like many voter ID laws, Pennsylvania’s Act 18 promised voters a free photo ID if they didn’t already have one.
But in order to qualify for the free ID, the voter would have to produce supporting documents, such as a birth certificate.
I ask Niki Ludt about her reaction to Act 18.
“Well, I knew that there were gonna be a lot of people that wouldn’t be able to vote,” she says.
On May 1, 2012, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), filed a lawsuit in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania to overturn the voter ID law.
When Niki Ludt heard about the lawsuit, she contacted the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
“I had just had a big birth certificate clinic and Viviette Applewhite came in. I contacted them and said ‘You really need to talk to this woman.’”
In 2012 Viviette Applewhite was a 92-year-old great great-grandmother who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Georgia and had voted in nearly every election since 1960.
But she had never learned to drive and after her purse was stolen she lost all her identifying documents. By the time Ludt contacted PILCOP, Viviette Applewhite had applied for a copy of her birth certificate at least three times, each time paying the application fee.
Although her checks were cashed, she never received a birth certificate — or any explanation.
“She was sending money into a black hole,” says Ludt.
Viviette Applewhite would eventually become the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
On January 17, 2014, Judge Bernard L. McGinley issued a permanent injunction blocking Act 18, noting that “between 4% and 5% of registered electors, roughly 320,000–400,00, lack the requisite ID.”
On May 8, 2014, then-Governor Tom Corbett announced that Pennsylvania would not pursue any further appeals of the ruling.
Volunteers, Donations and “a little piece of plastic”
When Adam Bruckner testified at the July 2013 trial, he told the court his ID program cost $50,000 a year. He explained how he raised that kind of money:
It’s private, so I — we have some people that help out with fund raising, and I have got a family that will donate $1,000 a month from their foundation, and I have girl that donates $10 a month, and a church that will give $150 a month. And over the course of the year, I have about $20,000 that I will know that I can count on being raised, and the rest I just have to kind of hustle up, or we’ll get a one-time donations or we’ll come along that way.
Since the fee hikes, that money only goes half as far. These days, Bruckner writes most checks for $13.50 and hopes the recipient can somehow come up with the rest.
The line on Vine Street still forms every Monday afternoon at 4. To date, Bruckner has written over 57,000 checks.
“And that’s people who are willing to come down to Center City and stand outside in the rain, snow and extreme heat at times,” he says.
Pennsylvania’s law may have been overturned, but 17 states still require voters to show a government-issued photo ID at the polls.
The Brennan Center for Justice reported in 2012 that 11% of eligible voters — over 21 million Americans — do not have a government-issued photo ID.
In 2015 Project Vote reported that less than half of adult citizens earning less that $25,000 a year voted in 2012.
No study has been conducted to determine how many of those low-income adults are depending on volunteers with donated cash, like Ludt and Bruckner, to protect their place at the polls.
“People would rather give money to serve food to somebody that’s hungry than to think about getting a little piece of plastic,” says Bruckner, “but that little piece of plastic is far more important than the meal.”