This American Independence Day, I’m a new resident of the new swing state of Arizona, where the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled in a party-line vote that voting restrictions aimed at disenfranchising voters of color are constitutional.
“What is tragic here,” Justice Kagan wrote, “is that the court has (yet again) rewritten — in order to weaken — a statute that stands as a monument to America’s greatness and protects against its basest impulses. What is tragic is that the court has damaged a statute designed to bring about ‘the end of discrimination in voting.’”Supreme Court Upholds Arizona Voting Restrictions, by Adam Liptak, New York Times
With the Voting Rights Act gutted by successive Republican administrations, Republican states stripping rights from voters of color and even elected officials they disagree with, the For The People Act hopelessly stalled in the Senate, and even smaller initiatives like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act jammed up by Republican obstructionism….
With all this in motion on this Fourth of July, our Independence Day, it’s hard to feel optimistic about the present or the future of this country, hard to not think about the stranglehold white supremacy has and has always had on this country.
And I’m revisiting one kind of voter suppression that I understand in a more personal way.
In the 2020 election, in the middle of a life-threatening global pandemic, five states required some or all of their absentee ballots to be notarized in order to be counted. In Oklahoma, an individual notary can only notarize a maximum of 20 ballots; to vote absentee without a notary, you must have access to a copier. Arizona and other states would like to join that list.
Lest you think of this as a small thing to secure election security, let me tell you about my attempt to get something notarized in Midtown Manhattan, pre-pandemic.
For a little over a semester in 2011, I worked as a special educator in a public school in New York City. I loved my students and co-teachers, but abusive administrators eventually stripped me of my job, though not before I had accrued a very small pension fund.
In 2017, while working for an amazing financial literacy nonprofit, I began to get serious about my own long-term financial planning, and began to consolidate my retirement funds. For three past employers’ retirement funds, I was able to fill out forms online, swear to my identity electronically, and have the funds wired directly. Then I started tracking down my NYC Department of Education pension in order to dump it into a fund with a less archaic Website.
Not only was the pension fund’s Website from another era, so was the process of authorizing a transfer of funds. Virtually nothing could be done electronically.
First I had to print out and mail in a change of address form, as I had moved twice since beginning my position with the DoE. Once I’d been mailed confirmation of my new address, I had to download, print and physically mail my request for a transfer of funds, but apparently, because I had been so quickly terminated with prejudice, I hadn’t met the minimum contribution requirements for the pension fund, so I had to mail in paperwork to remedy that.
Finally, the pension fund mailed me forms that would allow me to transfer my funds. These forms had to be notarized.
Now, fortunately, this request came during my “self-employment” year of gig work, so I had some weekday time available between gigs during the nine-to-five. Had I been fully employed, I could never have accomplished this task.
Early one afternoon, I departed my cram school teaching gig to get my paperwork notarized in Midtown Manhattan.
I had spent an hour or more researching where to find a notary, and almost every source said the same thing: Go to your bank.
This wasn’t news to me, but I use Ally Bank. There’s a lot I love about my bank. I picked it because it had some of the highest interest rates available, possible in part because it’s an entirely online bank, with no physical locations. I can use any ATM in the country and get my fees refunded, and on the rare occasions when I’ve needed help, I’ve never waited more than sixty seconds to speak to a real person in customer service, and never had to ask for a supervisor to get what I needed quickly and politely.
But I wouldn’t be able to get my form notarized by my online bank.
I went into Midtown branches of four different banks that afternoon. They all had notaries on hand. At one branch, I even got so far as to sit across a desk from the notary before I was told that notary services were only for customers. Unless I had an account with the bank, I would have to leave.
By then, it was five o’clock, all the banks were closing, and I headed for the train station.
It was a few more days before I had weekday afternoon availability. In the meantime, I had done some more Internet research, and learned that FedEx Business Centers had notaries. I found several within a handful of blocks from my cram school gig, and that’s where I headed on this second afternoon.
I stood in line for a long time. After being on my feet teaching all morning, and with about forty pounds in the commuter bag slung over my shoulder, it was painful and annoying, but finally I got one of the three FedEx employees to call me up to the counter.
“Our notary isn’t on shift today.”
“Do you have any idea where I could find a notary?”
He gave me directions to another FedEx store.
Again, I stood in line for a very long time. When, eventually, I reached the counter, I was informed that no notary was available at that location.
By now it was five o’clock again, and I headed home.
A few days later, I stood in line at the first FedEx again, but still no notary on shift. This time, though, the clerk had some helpful advice. It was tax season, and she pointed out that most tax preparers have notaries on staff.
Google Maps sent me up a few streets to an H&R Block where, finally, I found a notary who would take my money to witness my signature. For three crumpled dollar bills, I completed my paperwork.
Of course, the Teachers’ Pension Service found an error in my paperwork, and sent me back to the notary, but this time I knew where to go. The notary, his dark skin lined by years of work, he told me, as a janitor, refused my three dollars the second time around. When I tried to insist, he declined in his warm Caribbean accent, sending me off with a “Git your money, girl!”
With All My Privileges….
I’m a middle-class white woman with a graduate degree, born into a family of small business owners, with a former CFO as a grandfather. I know about money, and about notaries, and I’m a whiz at research. Even in the middle of one of the lowest points in my career, I had the time and flexibility to traipse around Midtown Manhattan for hours, in and out of more than half a dozen businesses over three days, during business hours.
Despite all those advantages, I nearly gave up. I think I cried at least three times, perched on the rickety bistro chairs outside of Macy’s with my enormous work bag and cramping back.
When I think of the barriers to notarizing….
You have to have a state-issued ID, or two witnesses to your identity.
You have to get yourself to a notary who will allow you to avail yourself of their services. This may require several attempts.
You must do so during working hours.
You may have to pay for the privilege.
If this notarizing measure, meant to restrict absentee ballot access for the poorest voters with the least access, particularly targeting voters of color, gets onto the ballot in Arizona in 2022 … you’re going to hear me get real loud and angry about it. I hope you’ll do the same if it shows up in your state!