For the last six decades, Barbara Decoursey, 79, has never missed voting in an election, especially a presidential election.
She has been voting faithfully ever since the days of Harry S. Truman, and she has seen to it that all of her children, grand- and great-grandchildren voted as well.
So committed has she been to the process that she has worked her way up the ladder to become an election judge for the city’s Board of Elections.
But this year, Decoursey got a scare that even she, an elections official, might not be able to perform her cherished ritual this time around. A new state voting law has nearly derailed her ability to vote by requiring credentials like a birth certificate that she doesn’t have.
And she’s not the only one. 96-year-old Louise Furness, like other seniors across the state, face a similar dilemma.
The cause of all their concerns is their difficulty in obtaining the required birth documentation to accommodate the new voter identification bill.
The problem is that would-be voters can’t get the photo identification without the birth certificate.
Decoursey is so well connected that on the face of it she would appear to be one of the last people to have a problem getting a birth certificate, even though she, like many of her generation, was born at home in the South at a time when the births of Black people weren’t tracked as closely as others.
“Back then, they didn’t have birth certificates,” said Furness.
Until higher political officials intervened, Decoursey, who had tried for years without success to obtain a birth certificate, thought she would not have a chance to once again vote for a Black president.
Decoursey worries that if she has had such difficulty what must it be like for other Black seniors.
Furness is one of those who still have a problem.
As in the case of Decoursey, her problem has been proving that she was ever born.
Because such a law reminds some of efforts to disqualify Barack Obama over his birth certificate, as well as other reasons, some critics claim it is a deliberate effort to make it more difficult for the elderly to vote in the Nov. 6 general election.
But supporters of the legislation like Gov. Tom Corbett contend the law is merely an effort to prevent voter fraud.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed the Voter ID Bill in March. When the bill becomes law in time for November election, all voters will be required to present photo identification at the polls. Those who do not produce identification will be allowed to cast provisional ballots and will be required to send in an identification document within six days after Election Day.
The new rule is expected to present difficulties for other elderly citizens besides Decoursey and Furness, who might not have photo IDs because they do not drive. A second problem was difficulty getting to a Department of Motor Vehicles office to get the necessary documents. Some may not even be aware of the new rule.
But the difficulty in obtaining birth certificates seems to be the biggest deterrent facing would-be voters who are seniors.
For both Decoursey and Furness, born of midwives down in North Carolina, birth certificates didn’t exist.
Even councilwoman Marian Tasco said she ran into a similar problem when she tried to obtain a driver’s license in 1968 after moving to Philadelphia.
At her recent Democratic fundraising brunch in North Philadelphia, Tasco said obtaining a birth certificate was a difficult ordeal.
“I went through it in 1968. I had to get a license...and they wrote back that there was no record of my birth.”
She said she had to go through a lengthy process of establishing her birth to obtain one.
“For many of us, birth certificates are difficult to come by,” she said. At a presentation of the Voter ID Law by the City Commissioner’s Office Tuesday, Tasco said the problem is especially acute for Black seniors, the backbone of Black voting power.
“For our elderly from places like Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, a lot were born at home,” she said.
Election official Donna Powell complained, “The rules seem to be changing day by day. It’s a big mess designed to deter voters from coming out to vote for Obama.”
Similar identification legislation has been introduced throughout the country, but Pennsylvania’s bill is said to be one of the strictest.
Proponents of such laws, claim that they support such legislation in order to prevent voter fraud. But at the presentation of a Voter I.D. bill educational meeting, state Rep. Cherelle Parker told an audience in West Oak Lane, “We can’t allow people to keep us away from the polls.”
She said though the bill has already been passed, opponents like herself were seeking to overturn the bill through lawsuits, legislative repeal and educating the public.
According to Parker, the NAACP and the ACLU have both filed lawsuits attempting to overturn the statute.
While help from state Rep. Dwight Evan’s office eventually paid off for Decoursey,
Furness was still in limbo about being able to obtain a birth certificate from her home state of North Carolina.
For many of her years voting, Furness had used a voter registration card. But she said her pocketbook, with the card in it, was stolen recently.
“I’ve been voting ever since I got a voting card,” she said, who said she is not sure how long ago that was. “At my age, I don’t remember everything. All I know is when I was born, there was no birth certificate.”
Both women are grandmothers who have suffered discrimination and have taught their children the sanctity of the ballot.
As Furness put it, “I have been voting in every election, now I don’t know which way to go.”