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 oath.
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.