The Deep, Dark Mysteries of Pennsylvania's Voter ID

 

Sometimes fearing the unknown isn't such a bad idea. Like, for instance, when they're serving "mystery meat" in the cafeteria. Or, on a slightly bigger scale, when your state is considering a new law that could disfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.

Pennsylvania legislators had no such healthy sense of fear when it came to passing the nation's most restrictive voter ID law just a little over four months ago—practically yesterday, considering the ramifications of such a huge change to election procedures. But when the bill was being debated, lawmakers and state officials supporting the bill insisted it would be a breeze to ensure that no one was disenfranchised; everybody who wanted to vote would still be able to vote. "This is going to be an additional responsibility," said Daryl Metcalf, the Republican state representative who sponsored the bill, but "one that is not burdensome in any way." Besides, Republican Governor Tom Corbett's office said that only 1 percent of Pennsylvanians lacked a valid ID. Even for that 1 percent, Corbett said, "This is no barrier to voting. You have to have a photo ID to go anywhere." For the scant few presumed to be lacking IDs, the state would provide one free of charge. Easy peasy.

But now, with only three months until Election Day, it's abundantly clear that things are going to be a lot more complicated. The number of voters lacking the required ID is considerably higher than state officials guessed. The plan for giving out free, new IDs is a complete mess. At best, it looks like the way Pennsylvania enforces the law, which deals with a central right of citizenship, will be a rushed affair. At worst, it will leave thousands, if not hundreds of thousands without a chance to cast a ballot.

While the state defends the law in court, officials are simultaneously scrambling to come up with a public education campaign and make new identification cards widely available. Court proceedings started last week in a lawsuit brought by voting rights groups. Testimony on Friday highlighted just how much is left to do to implement the law—and just how much remains unknown. The stakes are high, as Pennsylvania is a swing state in one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent memory.

Despite the implications, there's a whole lot we don't really know about Pennsylvania's plans for implementing its voter ID regulations. Let's start with what we do know; it's scary enough.

First of all, the law is way more complicated than its proponents would allow during the debate. "Photo ID" sounds simple enough, but the state's law has a slew of specific requirements. For starters, acceptable identification must have an expiration date. That requirement knocks out a variety of IDs that you might expect would be accepted, like veteran's cards issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It also disallows a lot of college ID cards; while the law allows IDs issued from any state university or community college, most of those IDs don't currently carry an expiration date. Many colleges are trying to issue new ID cards or put stickers on the old cards with expiration dates, but time is short.

The law has a slew of other caveats and wrinkles. For instance, while identification cards must have an expiration date, those issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation can still be used even if they're expired—so long as they've expired less than one year before November 6. All other forms must still be valid, including passports and military IDs. Employee IDs issued by counties and municipalities are allowed (so long as they have an expiration date), but any other form of photo ID issued by counties or municipalities won't be accepted. (That means if you were planning on using your gun license, you'd better come up with a new plan.)

We also know that a ton of people will need new or alternative identification with a photo. The Secretary of the Commonwealth's own study—released long after legislators passed the law—shows that as many as 9 percent of registered voters currently lack an ID issued by the state's Department of Transportation, the most common form of identification. Subsequent studies have found even more alarming numbers. Matt Barreto, a professor at the University of Washington, found that 12.6 percent of Pennsylvanians who voted in 2008 currently lack a valid ID. An analysis by the AFL-CIO showed that, when you factor in those whose IDs will have expired longer than a year by Election Day, as many as 20 percent of Pennsylvania voters—or 1.6 million Pennsylvanians—could be disenfranchised.

The greatest unknown is how the state plans to ensure these massive numbers of voters can get their identification in time. When the law was passed, state officials said it would be no problem to educate voters and distribute IDs. Already, though, the offices that issue IDs are making mistakes. Friday's testimony showed that voters were being charged for IDs that are supposed to be free. There's also a serious concern that poll workers won't know the rules around the new law; they will not be required to attend training sessions on voter ID, and the state has sent out conflicting information to local election officials.

A plan to offer a new photo ID specifically for voters was supposedly concocted in June, after the lawsuit was filed. Several of the plaintiffs in the suit are senior citizens who do not have birth certificates, or other necessary documents they would need to get a standard state-issued ID. The new voter ID cards, according to state officials, would offer such people an option. But as court testimony made clear Friday, the state has already struggled with delays; the IDs were supposed to be ready last week. Now, one state official testified, they will be ready to go by August 26. But as the plaintiffs' attorney pointed out, there's no mention of that date in the contract with the vendor that's supposed to produce these cards. And there is no penalty if the vendor fails to have the cards ready by then.

State officials say that won't be a problem. But the legislature only provided funding for 85,000 new IDs. That doesn't even cover the number needed in Philadelphia alone. But Kurt Myers, the deputy secretary for safety administration, told the court that he expected to issue fewer than 10,000 of the new voter ID cards. 

Ten thousand IDs? When hundreds of thousands don't have them? Were we all absent for math class the day they taught "voter ID counting"?

As it happens, this is not a math problem. It's a problem of cynical politics. As Barreto found, a third of Pennsylvanians don't even know about the law. Many will show up at the polls and be turned away. The inevitable delays and arguments will almost surely leave others in line longer—and make it more likely that they'll leave without voting. The number of Pennsylvanians who vote will almost surely decline. There's no clear state plan for dealing with voters lacking identification, because, it's clear, the plan is that many of them simply won't show up.

Which brings us to the last thing we know: This law is about suppressing the votes of poor and nonwhite voters. 

Voter fraud, the ostensible reason for all this, is not a problem in Pennsylvania or in anywhere else in the U.S. This law is about partisan advantage for the GOP, pure and simple. The state has already admitted in court documents that there are no known cases of in-person voter fraud, in which one person pretends to be another. (That's the only kind of fraud this law guards against.) As Talking Points Memo first reported, Pennsylvania has already signed an agreement with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, acknowledging that there have been no investigations of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania and that there's not likely to be any such fraud this November. The state isn't even going to pretend that voter fraud is a problem—though that was the sole justification for passing this law.

The Republican House Majority Leader in the state already bragged that voter ID would result in a win for Mitt Romney. Left unsaid was that the law would make it disproportionately harder for poor and minority voters who tend to vote Democratic. 

This is about politics at the cost of civil rights. That's one thing we know for sure.

 

Comments

As accurate as any summary I've seen. The only issue not addressed is the election provision in Pennsylvania's Constitution: "Elections shall be free and equal; and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage." In automatically sanctioning one set of voters - those that have IDs - and excluding others who lack the required identification, Republican legislators set up protected classes, thereby discriminating against a significant number of duly registered state residents whose access to the proscribed IDs is largely determined by demographic factors (e.g., if you live in the suburbs, you are more likely to own a car than those who live in a city, and therefore, you're more likely to have a driver's license.) This favors one class of citizens, and places a burden of proof on another. Considering the state's constitutional guarantees, the only fair and equitable system would be one where all Pennsylvanians must obtain the same ID and have equally convenient access to one.

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