Dignity & Hope: Moving Toward Equal Access in Norristown

NVNNL Voter ID clinics
Sharon Williams and Donna Windle train volunteers from Montgomery County to run a voter/photo ID clinic. Pictured, counter-clockwise from the left, Williams, Windle, Rita Heinegg, Carol Newman, G. Hulings Darby, and Dot Martin. Photo by Ertell Whigham.

by Samantha Lioi, Minister of Peace and Justice

It started with a simple Facebook exchange. Donna Windle of Nueva Vida Norristown (Pa.) New Life noticed a friend’s comment reacting to controversy over recent  laws requiring the presentation of a government-issued  ID to vote.

Her friend said she would get IDs for people quickly, to show how easy it was.  Windle—a social worker serving as Assistant Director at Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center of Montgomery County—knew from wading through hours and days of red tape that it was much more involved than her friend might think.

At that moment, she remembers, “I hit send and heard God’s voice say, You have the skills…why don’t you do something about it?”

Windle approached a Bible study group in her congregation that shares her concern for justice. She and Sharon Williams decided they would run a clinic on the second Saturday of each month for people in Norristown who needed assistance in applying for a government-issued ID.  Many people who’ve come are working two or three jobs, don’t have a case worker, and don’t have the time to spend navigating the system and learning the changing requirements for IDs.  They also might not have the money to pay for out-of-state birth certificates or replacement/renewal ID cards.

Transportation to ID-issuing centers is a challenge for many eligible voters because of low income, lack of access to a vehicle, and in rural areas, few options for public transportation.  Many ID-issuing offices are open infrequently, or only during working hours, so that those in poverty who are working would have to take time off to apply for an ID.  According to Keesha Gaskins and Sundeep Lyer of the Brennan Center at NYU’s law school, “1.2 million eligible black voters and 500,000 eligible Hispanic voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week. People of color are more likely to be disenfranchised by these laws since they are less likely to have a photo ID than the general population.”

Not only that, but not all IDs are free. The free “voter only” IDs are not useful for other things and, depending on the documentation needed to get a photo ID – such as an out-of-state birth certificate – the cost of obtaining the ID can be prohibitive for low-income people.  Birth certificates alone range from $8-50.

Knowing the political landscape, before beginning their clinics the two women contacted the offices of both the Republican and Democratic parties to let them know their plans and to be clear that they were non-partisan.  In fact, Windle says, while helping people get an ID for voting is important, it is not her only or even her primary concern.

“Voter ID is important, but in general, people need an ID.  You can’t get a job, housing, or travel if you don’t have it,” she said.  Many of those who come to the clinics fall within the Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) definition of people who are precariously housed—“like Jesus,” says Windle, they piece together their housing needs by sleeping on friends’ couches or renting a room until their money runs out.

Likewise, some who come to the Norristown clinic don’t care about being registered to vote; they just want to get their ID and get going.  Windle remembers a volunteer saying, “’But she’s not going to vote.’ I said that’s fine; I didn’t ask her to vote. . . . It’s about building relationships, taking care of getting what she needs.  Her main concerns are where is she going to eat, where will she find a bathroom, and where is she going to safely sleep.  Voting is too high a [goal] at this point.”

As word got around about the clinics, volunteers came from Pottstown, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and even Boston. Since the clinics began in May, Windle and Williams have trained over 70 people to operate clinics in their home communities.  Working alongside the volunteers has also been an unexpected opportunity to educate about issues of poverty and racism, and to share Nueva Vida’s testimony.

The church has received donations to support the clinics. Grants from Franconia Conference and a black fraternity, designated for work on justice issues, covered supplies and money orders for photo ID renewal/replacement cards. To avoid abuse of their small system, the money orders are made out to PENNDOT.  Donors have also provided snacks, pizza gift cards for volunteers’ lunches, and stamps.

Realizing that the need goes much deeper than the desire to exercise the right to vote, they plan to continue to offer clinics once per quarter after the election.  Windle continues to hold both values as she works.

“More will be coming; am I going to get them all registered to vote? No,” she said. “But they will get their ID’s and the things they need… I don’t want them to be denied the right to choose who is representing them because they can’t afford an ID.”

Although Windle wants every eligible voter to have the chance to vote, she is concerned for the bigger picture of their quality of life and their struggle to provide for themselves.  This long view, valuing people’s dignity and holding hope for the livelihood of other Norristown citizens, enlivens Nueva Vida’s ongoing work, partnering with a God who became “precariously housed” to bring the kingdom of love and justice near.