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.
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.”