Voter ID law a problem for Amish, other
HARRISBURG (AP) — Nothing is sacred about your religion when it comes to getting a state identification card without a photo.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation offers ID cards for those with religious objections to being photographed. The Amish and certain sects of the Mennonite community are among those who object to having their photos taken because of their faith.
To get a nonphoto ID for religious reasons, applicants must answer a series of 18 questions that delve deeply into their faiths and other personal information.
Now that Pennsylvania has passed one of the nation’s toughest voter ID laws to prevent voter fraud, the scope of the questions is drawing criticism.
The first item on PennDOT’s form asks applicants to “describe your religion.” It is followed by more questions that devout followers might struggle to answer, and some that inquire about the lives of family members.
How many members are there of your religion?
How many congregations?
What’s the process by which you came to the religion?
What religious practices do you observe?
Do other family members hold the same religious beliefs?
Submitting that form, once notarized, is not enough. Applicants must fill out another form.
If they lack proof of identification, yet another form must be completed before a nonphoto ID is issued. The ID is valid for four years, and the renewal process is simpler.
Going through this process is essential if those who hold religious objections to being photographed want to vote. Anyone who wants to vote must show identification in the November election.
Two Republican senators, both of whom supported the voter ID law, have expressed concerns about what it takes to get a nonphoto ID.
State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, said the questions seem intrusive, and he wonders why all that information is needed.
“They are going to be keeping them from the polls, keeping American citizens from the polls,” Folmer said. “That’s what I’m concerned about.”
“That form is an overreach in my opinion,” said Sen. Mike Brubaker, R-Lancaster. “I don’t want persons for religious reasons not to have a photo taken, to go through a process that is any more cumbersome than absolutely necessary to get the proper identification to be able to vote.”
Those concerns prompted Brubaker and his chief of staff to meet with PennDOT officials Friday to understand why such a cumbersome process is required.
Afterward, Brubaker said he came away with a better understanding that PennDOT’s multistep process is intended to weed out people who are seeking nonphoto IDs for fraudulent purposes.
“They need to have a relatively tight process for that reason,” Brubaker said. But he said he still has issues that he hopes to get addressed.
Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said some of the questions on the affidavit are relevant to determine if the applicant’s beliefs are sincere.
But she added, “I have no idea what the purpose would be of some of the other questions they have here.”
A PennDOT spokeswoman said the forms for a nonphoto ID have existed for a year.
PennDOT spokeswoman Jan McKnight said the questions on the affidavit were created by the agency’s lawyers based on federal and state case law.
“It can’t be too simple because we are talking about a legal ID,” McKnight said. “We are not here to stand in the way of them getting their ID, but we’re just recognizing the fact that this is of such importance to them that they don’t want to have their picture taken.”
The answers are reviewed by PennDOT personnel and not shared with any other agency, a requirement of the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, she said.
Not answering all the questions on the affidavit form is reason for denying the issuance of a nonphoto ID, PennDOT spokesman Craig Yetter said. And there have been denials.
In the past, the Amish have submitted a letter from their bishop affirming their membership in that religious order instead of completing the affidavit to get the ID card. Those Amish seeking simply to renew a photo ID card can still rely on a letter from their bishop.
Going forward, new Amish applicants must fill out the PennDOT forms and questions to get an ID.
Looking over the questions asked on the affidavit, McKnight agreed that some might seem a bit personal.
“It’s hard not to get personal when you are talking about matters of religion,” McKnight said.
The department does not track how many times it has denied requests for nonphoto IDs, which cost $13.50.
Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, said the Amish objection to being photographed is grounded in their beliefs.
The Amish view it as following the Second Commandment “of not making graven images (idolatry) ... focusing on the individual, calling attention to individual, rather than community.”
Asking Amish people to fill out an 18-question survey reflecting their religious views will be problematic for them, Kraybill said.
“‘Describe your religion’ would be difficult for many people, let alone ones with an eighthgrade education,” he said.
But an even bigger issue for them is providing all this information to the government agencies without knowing how it will be used or who sees it, Kraybill said.
“Amish people may be willing to jump over all these hurdles if necessary for purposes of international travel or to open a bank account, but I’m doubtful that many would be willing to do it just to vote,” he said.
PennDOT indicates it has issued nearly 4,000 nonphoto IDs that are currently valid to people with religious objections. Pennsylvania is home to 61,000 Amish.
G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said a lot of Amish and Mennonites don’t vote. When they do, they tend to vote Republican.
Democrats voiced most of the opposition to the voter ID law, saying it could hurt turnout among minority groups and those in cities who don’t drive.
But when the GOP-backed voter ID legislation was being debated, Madonna said at the time that it would be filled with unintended consequences.
“That’s what we’re seeing here,” he said.
The Rev. Sandy Strauss, director of public advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, reviewed the questions on the affidavit. She said it would be difficult to complete without extensive research.
“We at the Pennsylvania Council of Churches couldn’t even give an accurate count of all congregations, total members, etc.,” she said.
Strauss also wonders what difference it makes if other family members share the applicant’s beliefs.
She noted that in her own case, her family was Roman Catholic and she chose to become a Presbyterian. Her husband’s family was raised Methodist and now he is the one who holds that faith. Others in his family chose to become a Sufi Muslim, one Assemblies of God, one Catholic and one agnostic.
She asks, “Would those who went in another direction have their rights questioned?”
Brubaker said he discussed the process for obtaining the nonphoto IDs with the Old Order Steering Committee, an Amish liaison group that meets with government officials on issues that intersect with Amish life. He said they have significant concerns about the process.
“They want a nonphoto ID and want the process to be as user-friendly as possible,” he said. “Members of the Old Order Steering Committee have a concern (that this process) could potentially have a dampening effect on voter turnout. We don’t want that.”
Kristin Crawford, Brubaker’s chief of staff, said PennDOT explained Friday that Amish who have had a nonphoto ID for years don’t need to fill out multiple forms and questions simply to renew it; that will only apply to first-time applicants.
When that was explained to a member of the Old Order Steering Committee, Crawford said that seemed to satisfy some of the Amish’s concerns.
Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, agrees with the voter ID law. But Arneson said it does seem appropriate to take a fresh look at the process involved in getting a nonphoto IDs “to see if that level of scrutiny is truly necessary.”
Folmer said he was assured that his concerns about people with religious objections to having their photo taken had been addressed. Looking over the PennDOT affidavit, he said he now thinks otherwise.
A devout Presbyterian, he said he would have problems answering some of the questions on that form without doing research.
“The Amish were pretty lackadaisical about voting when they started seeing their farming capabilities and the way they farm being encroached. They decided to get a little more active, as did the Mennonite community,” Folmer said. “I don’t want to hurt that, and I would have voted ‘no’ on voter ID if I hadn’t been told that they had taken care of that.”