When Laila Stones sent a letter to the
Commonwealth of Virginia requesting a copy of her birth certificate, the
response was jarring: “They say I don’t exist,” she recounts under
Stones needs her birth certificate so that she can obtain a photo
identification card and thereby vote in November. She’s a witness
against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where she now lives, in a
lawsuit filed by civil rights groups to block the state’s voter ID law.
Stones is one of at least ten witnesses called to testify about the
burdens she’s suffered to obtain the ID now mandated for voting. Her
testimony is mostly about why she doesn’t have the resources to comply.
But how can this be? How hard is it to get a driver’s license? You
need one for everything these days: to cash a check, to board a plane,
to open a bank account, to buy allergy medicine, to buy liquor. How can
one function in society without a picture of themselves on a
government-issued piece of plastic? As I’ve covered the voting rights
battles of 2012, these are questions I’ve heard repeatedly not just from
Republicans and conservatives, but also from some Democrats, liberals
and progressives. How can one exist without this card?
Stones has lived in Philadelphia for fifty-three years, but was born
in a small town in Virginia. I’m sitting in the Commonwealth courtroom
listening as she explains from the witness stand how Virginia denied her
a birth certificate. A lawyer from the petitioners’ side pulls a letter
from Virginia’s vital records office that explains the denial.
She’s an African-American woman who’s wearing her hair in cornrows,
with a white sleeveless shirt that’s maybe a notch above a tanktop and
blue shorts. She’s what the body-mass-index campaigners would call
“obese.” Her English is not the Queen’s, and it sounds like she might be
chewing gum on the stand. These are not important characteristics to
me, but I’d be dishonest if I said I didn’t notice them. I ask myself,
what is in me that makes me want to notice her difference
from the rest of the room?
And if I notice it, then God, those white lawyers representing the
state in their crisp, FBI-dark suits, they must notice, too. Watching
the state lawyers scribble on paper as she testifies, I wonder if
they’re noting perceived inconsistencies in her statements, or simply
that she’s wearing cornrows. Like I just did.
When Stones is cross-examined by one of the state’s attorneys, they ask her about how she gets around. The bus, she says.
And how long does it take you to get to your polling place?
About a half-hour on public transportation.
Do you know your Social Security number?
they ask this adult woman.
She begins reciting it aloud, number-by-number, emphasizing each
numeral to prove she knows it. This is unnecessary, so the state’s
attorney holds up his hand halting her from finishing the numbers. His
hand motion draws laughter. “That’s very impressive,” he says.
The judge, who is white and robed darkly, also laughs, but politely, I
guess. He sits to Stones’ immediate left, slightly elevated above her
so that whenever he speaks directly to her, he must speak down to her.
Same when he laughs.
Like Stones, most of the petitioners’ witnesses live in some kind of
public housing facility. They live in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh and
some of them had to catch rides with their lawyers to this hearing in
Harrisburg. After the hearing, they’ll return to their home cities and
resume using public transportation. This is part of the reason why they
don’t have driver’s licenses. This is also part of the reason why their
lives are under assault.
Outside the courtroom, campaign wars are being waged over why America
is broken, or at least why the economy is. Perhaps not coincidentally,
the same political party and ideology that passed strict voter ID laws
in Pennsylvania and at least a half-dozen other states
in the last two years, are the same players calling for funding cuts to
public transportation, public healthcare and public housing—in some
cases, erasure of these funds altogether. They argue, in short, that
people who turn to these public goods for life’s basic necessities need
to get their shit together, like the rest of America.
Inside the courtroom, I wonder if the all-white lawyers of the state
are thinking this, too, thinking that Stones just needs to get her shit
together. I shudder to think the judge might think this, even though
he’s so polite. I look around the mostly white courtroom—the judge, news
reporters, even the advocates who have come to support Stones—and I
wonder how many others share the thought.
Stones’ inability to get an ID comes through no fault of her own. She
just doesn’t exist, according to Virginia. All we know of her reality,
is what’s shared in court.
At this point, that’s the ID cards in her
possession: a check-cashing ID, a food stamp card, her Medicare card and
a library card. The cards stand as symbols of the areas of society to
which Stones has access. They are displayed on a wall-sized projector
screen for all of us to gawk at, and judge. She has a library card and
thus can educate herself about the politics of the moment, but her lack
of a driver’s license now means she can’t vote on what she’s learned.
Pennsylvania’s lawyers argue that Stones can vote by other forms of
ID. She should know this, they say, because they’ve been doing community
outreach to ensure everyone learns the provisions of the new voter ID
law. Yet it’s been established that the governor
and secretary of state
don’t know the details of the law themselves.
The Commonwealth argues that Stones can vote with the use of a
passport. They assume she has left the country, or can afford to. They
say she can use a college ID, assuming she went to college, or could
afford to, or even that the college she might have attended puts
expiration dates on its ID, as the voting law requires.
Some of the petitioners’ other witnesses didn’t finish high school.
One witness, Anna Gonzalez, was adopted in New York after her birth in
Puerto Rico, and has no birth certificate. Neither can she board a plane
to get back to her native state to locate it. Puerto Rico also told
Gonzalez she doesn’t exist, she testified earlier.
These are not irresponsible people. All of them have held jobs. The
eldest witness, Viviette Applewhite, 93, an African-American, testified
that one of her jobs was as a cleaning lady when she lived in Virginia.
She cleaned a courtroom, “one just like this one,” she says from the
stand. I look at the paintings of the white judges lining the perimeter
of the courtroom and I wonder, Where are the paintings of the janitors
like Applewhite? The room is pristine. Someone got it that way and it
wasn’t the judges and the lawyers.
The Commonwealth’s lawyers grill Stones. They ask her to explain why she doesn’t have other forms of identification.
Tell me again why you don’t have a birth certificate? Do you have
a Social Security card? Why not? Are you still trying to get one? When
was the last time you tried? Did you know that if you took this bus
route to get to that polling place before it closes, and then supply
this information and then sign that application, and another one, and an
affidavit, that you can have a Pennsylvania ID, delivered maybe on the last week of August?
These questions are to help the state prove its argument: that
obtaining a voter ID is neither burdensome nor intrusive. But I also
wonder if they seek these answers because they genuinely want Stones to
account for herself. Because they don’t live her reality, but they want
to understand. Because maybe understanding it might change their minds
and they’ll drop the law. That seems unlikely.
The challenge for Stones’ lawyers is to convince the judge and the
state’s leaders—people who also don’t live Stones’s reality—that her
narrative is valid, as are the narratives of the other witnesses like
her. We know that this is a Commonwealth, but the wealth assumed here in
court is not at all common. And there are reasons for that.
So Stones submits to a grilling as her life, rather than the voter ID
law, stands trial. She has, in recent years, been reminded constantly
from the news, from Congress, from political campaigns that her use of
public health insurance, public transit, public housing are all drains
on the nation’s wealth; that people like her are the reason government
is “too big,” the reason for the foreclosure crisis, for the economic
collapse; that the race, gender, native status, income status of her and
her fellow witnesses are all problems, as are the fact that they are
carless or homeless.
Still, they have taken the stand, seated below the Commonwealth’s
judge, which must take a tremendous amount of courage, to stand up for
the rights of Pennsylvanians like themselves. They are fighting off the
consequences of a new label: ID-less. Which is to say face-less,
potentially vote-less. Or as Stones put it, far more eloquently, “They
say I don’t exist.”
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