Voter suppression, Al Schmidt and me

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I was paralyzed in 2016, a month after covering the Democratic National Convention.

It was devastating. I had been living with MS for 30 years, so disability was not new to me. But with the MS I still had some use of my legs and could walk short distances with a cane. The paralysis — sudden and swift — shattered my life and ended my independence for even the smallest things.

It also meant even if I were well enough (I wasn’t), I could no longer vote at my local polling place, which is notoriously inaccessible. In November 2016, I had to vote for the first woman president by absentee ballot. Not my choice, and ridiculously complicated, but at least I could vote.

I faced the same process for the May primary: a process that penalizes disabled people and smacks of voter suppression.

As the governor’s website explains, Pennsylvanians can: “Submit an absentee ballot request form (by mail or in person) or download an application form from votesPA.com/absenteeballot, [then] sending a letter to the county board of elections in the county in which you are registered.”

Who’s doing any of that?

I was. But who else?

I don’t know the numbers on absentee ballots in Philadelphia, but I do know that the harder the government makes it for people to vote, the less likely people are to vote. My parents were civil-rights workers — voter enfranchisement was baked into me as a toddler. I wasn’t ceding my vote to anyone.

I filed my application for my absentee ballot again for this year’s midterms. And waited for my absentee ballot — which never came. The clock was ticking. I called the Board of Elections to find out where it was, and they told me they would send it right out.

A few days later I got the envelope — and another application.

No. I was not going to be cheated out of voting just because I was sick and paralyzed and unable to get to the polling place a few blocks away.

I tweeted the Philadelphia City Commissioners and Commissioner Al Schmidt. I demanded a ballot in front of my 72,000 Twitter followers — some of whom joined me in my request.

I got a response within 10 minutes. The following morning, Schmidt called me. He told me I would have to file another application because they couldn’t find my initial one. I told him I had once flown back from another country just to vote in a presidential election, and that he had to be sure I got to vote.

He did.

Schmidt personally picked up the second ballot application before he went to the office. The next day he personally dropped my absentee ballot off. But the clock was ticking out on the deadline for receipt. So the following morning, on his way to work, he came by our house again and picked up my ballot. At 10:49 a.m. on Oct. 25, Commissioner Al Schmidt texted me: “Just confirming: picked up. Time stamped at 10:41 a.m.. You’re all set.”

My vote was cast, thanks to a superlatively dedicated civil servant.

I am grateful to Al Schmidt for securing my vote — so grateful.

But what about everyone else who isn’t a local reporter with the back-up of tens of thousands of social-media followers? What about people who don’t even know they can vote absentee ballot if they are sick or disabled or otherwise homebound? The forms themselves are complicated. There is almost no space to write what needs to be written. The language is obscure in both English and Spanish. The timing is tight. The deadlines are immutable.

We need a better system in Pennsylvania, and particularly in Philadelphia, which is the poorest big city in America. More than half of us are people of color, with 15-percent immigrants and where one in five is disabled.

I got to vote because I know how to access the system when the process failed me — but only because Al Schmidt came to my rescue.

Let’s change the system and make it easier, not harder, for the voices who most need to be heard — the disenfranchised — to cast their votes. 

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Victoria A. Brownworth
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.