The debate around voter ID laws is generally one about protection versus disenfranchisement. Advocates of the laws, which require photo identification to vote, often say the law won't have an impact anyone who's voting legally. In Pennsylvania, the Secretary of the Commonwealth assured lawmakers that 99 percent of voters in the state had the necessary identification, and promised that "No one entitled to vote will be denied that right by this bill." Her views were echoed by Republican lawmakers throughout the state who pushed for the measure. You need a photo ID for everything these days, the logic seemed to go, so why not voting too? After all, who doesn't have a photo ID?
Well, a lot of people. The Secretary of the Commonwealth put out a press release Tuesday announcing that 9 percent of registered voters didn't have photo IDs from the state Department of Transportation. Pennsylvania's voter ID law, which became law March of this year, allows voters to use a variety of types of photo IDs. While that includes things like passports, university ID cards, the state assumes most voters will rely on driver's licenses or nondriver identification cards for voting. The recent findings show a shocking percentage of voters don't have either one—a far cry from Aichele's assurances that 99 percent of Pennsylvania voters had the necessary ID.
Of course, the discrepancy isn't mentioned in the press release. Titled "Department of State and PennDOT Confirm Most Registered Voters Have Photo ID," it emphasizes that the "vast majority of registered voters" already have identification. It's not until the fifth paragraph that you get the startling news that only 91 percent of registered voters could be matched with Department of Transportation records of identification.
Even so, the secretary is eager to see the bright side: "Of the 758,939 voters who could not be matched between the Department of State and PennDOT databases, 22 percent, or 167,566, are inactive voters, most of whom have not voted since 2007." That only leaves 591,000 "active" voters without driver's licenses—you know, approximately the population of Las Vegas.
The press release is part and parcel of a familiar implication in these debates: that there's something wrong with certain parts of the voting population. Voter ID laws are about politics, of course: The intent is to dampen turnout among those less likely to have IDs—poor and minority voters who are more likely to vote Democratic. The "right sort" of voters have photo IDs, eat apple pie on the Fourth of July and, it seems, vote Republican. The political underpinnings are particularly clear in Pennsylvania, where, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the state's House Republican leader recently made it all to clear: At last month's Republican State Committee meeting, he trumpeted the new law thusly: "Voter ID—which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania—done."
Philadelphia, the Democratic stronghold in the state, was particularly hit by the lack of IDs—the Inquirer reports that almost 20 percent of voters in the city, or 186,000, don't have identification from the Department of Transportation.
To her credit, Aichele has engaged in some voter-awareness campaigns. For instance, she's helped simplify the process to get IDs, and everyone not matched with the Department of Transportation rolls will get a letter explaining the IDs are free but required for voting. But the fact remains: There's virtually no evidence of in-person voter fraud, the only kind that voter ID laws prevent. And there's increasingly scary evidence that many legitimate voters lack identification.
In Pennsylvania, a challenge to the law is still moving through the courts, and will likely get to the state Supreme Court before the November elections. The stakes—for a basic right of citizenship, and potentially for the presidential race—couldn't be higher.