When Bill Fisher was 17, his country gave him a gun. He had to wait four more years to earn the right to vote. It was a lesson he never forgot.
"I can't remember not voting since then," said Fisher, 70, a local attorney and voting rights activist who spoke Tuesday, Sept. 25 at a voter registration rally hosted by United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
UNC's National Voter Registration Day gathering at the West Side Senior Center in Scranton mixed sober injunctions by Fisher and other speakers with the fun of a trivia contest and practical information about voting.
The agency registered about 100 new voters since kicking off a registration drive on Sept. 1, UNC Executive Director Michael Hanley said. Those efforts will continue until Oct. 9, the last day to register. The agency also will coordinate rides to the polls on Election Day for any community member not able to get there on their own.
It is a project which has taken on added resonance for Hanley and his staff against the backdrop of Pennsylvania's new, embattled Voter ID law.
Under the law registered voters who do not have a photo ID will be able to cast a provisional ballot. They then will have six days to provide an ID or make an affirmation to their county elections office. The state Department of Transportation also has made free photo IDs for voting purposes available through PennDOT Driver License Centers.
But the law remains subject to an ongoing legal challenge, with a two-day Commonwealth Court concluding on Thursday, Sept. 27. The state Supreme Court gave Judge Robert Simpson until Tuesday, Oct. 2 to rule. Supporters say the measure will prevent voter fraud, while opponents have argued that it will effectively disenfranchise many poor and elderly voters – a reality borne out by the difficulty already experienced by some state residents who attempted to obtain free photo IDs from PennDOT offices.
Whatever the outcome of the case, Hanley fears that "a lot of damage has already been done," and some would-be voters have been scared away from the polls.
In addition to its registration efforts, UNC has provided several senior citizens rides to PennDOT's Dunmore office to obtain new IDs.
Austin Peters didn't seem put off by the controversy on Tuesday. At 15, the West Scranton High School student isn't old enough to vote, but said he fully plans to embrace that right when he comes of age. In the meantime, Peters demonstrated his passion for American government and democracy during UNC's trivia contest.
"I love history," said Peters, whose hand seemed continuously on his signal bell during the contest, in which more than two dozen questions from the U.S. Citizenship test were posed to teams ranging from teenagers to senior citizens.
The questions touched on everything from what the Declaration of Independence accomplished to identifying the current, Scranton-born vice president. Quiz master Gary Drapek, president and CEO of United Way of Lackawanna and Wayne counties, simply gave every team five points for knowing that Joe Biden occupies the second highest post in the land.
Granting that concession probably gave Drapek and the audience a momentary reprieve from the furious ringing of bells as contestants battled to display their knowledge of what makes the American system tick.
In the end, Peters took home some movie passes for his prowess. Fisher, who spoke about the long history of Americans' efforts to extend the right to vote to all adults, hoped everyone would go home with a more profound appreciation of why voting matters.
"The vote is emblematic of our equality, our liberty. Without voting, you don't really have that," Fisher said. "If everyone stopped voting, what would we have then?"
"Oh, brother!" someone shouted from the audience.