Pennsylvania Has a New Voter ID Option—But Serious Burdens Remain


There's a lot not to like about Pennsylvania's voter ID law, which requires voters show a government-issued photo ID at the polls. Only a few types of IDs are acceptable, like driver's licenses and passports, and even public-university student IDs must have an expiration date on them. Ever since Republicans passed the law in March, critics have worried that without a comprehensive education plan, hundreds of thousands of voters would not even know about the law—those Pennsylvanians, disproportionately nonwhite and low-income, who lack the necessary ID. Most urgently, they pointed to the people could't get an ID under Pennsylvania's unusually restrictive rules, because they didn't have a birth certificate or social security card or their married name was different than the names on some documents. In a lawsuit aimed at blocking the law, plaintiff Vivienne Applewhite exemplified the problem—a longtime voter, born in South Carolina, whose Social Security card had been stolen and whose birth certificate did not match her current last name. Almost anywhere else in the U.S., she'd be able to keep voting. In Pennsylvania, it would be practically impossible. 

The state promised that such problems would be solved by voter education efforts and by a new card, a "card of last resort" that would allow people without the necessary documentation to get an ID. A Commonwealth Court judge ruled in favor of the state based on those assurances, noting that he was "not convinced any qualified elector need by disenfranchised" once the new "card of last resort" was in place. 

With just more than 60 days until the election, the last-resort card is finally available. That's certainly good news, but it still leaves significant burdens on voters—and raises questions about why this law was needed in the first place. 

Ironically, the last-resort card is harder to get for those born in Pennsylvania than those born out of state. To get the ID, those born out of state can go to one of the state's ID-issuing offices, give their information, and, once the state worker recognizes the applicant lacks the necessary documents, they can get the card using showing just two proofs of residency and providing some basic information. (Both the new card of last resort and standard ID cards are free for voting purposes.)

However, those born in Pennsylvania have to go to the office twice. And even before that, even if they don't have a birth certificate, they must request a certified birth record from the state. (For those born out of state, getting a new birth certificate can be almost impossible.) After making that request, the Pennsylvania natives must go home and wait for the state to send confirmation of the birth record. Then they must return to the office and request the new voter ID card, bringing proofs of residency as well. Since many of the affected voters are elderly, two trips to the state offices—which are not, to say the least, located on every corner—may be prove exhausting and burdensome. The Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, a group that's trying to raise awareness of the law and help people get IDs, is trying to pressure the state into letting everyone, born in the state or out of it, get the same-day option. It's a significant time commitment to go to a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation office once, let alone twice, and PennDOT offices have struggled to ensure their workers know the law's requirements and what options voters are supposed to have. 

While it's a slight improvement, the new card does not solve the larger problem of voter awareness. While the state says it has a broad-scale plan for educating the public, there's little evidence to support that assertion. The debate over the state law has been saturated with evidence of partisan politicking. Advocates for the new requirement said it was necessary to guard against voter fraud, but there's no evidence of in-person fraud in Pennsylvania's elections. Meanwhile, the state House Republican Majority Leader Mike Turzai openly bragged the law would pave the way for a Mitt Romney victory in the state. The PR firm hired to educate voters is controlled largely by Republicans. If voters do not know about the law, even those who simply need to get their license renewed will not be able to cast a standard ballot. Because of the inevitable confusion and complications, lines on Election Day could be extreme in cities like Philadelphia—and long waits often mean some people give up and go home.

But with the new card in place, one has to ask why this law is so strict in the first place. Legitimate, registered voters must jump through a variety of hoops to get an ID; why can't they simply use the same utility bill to vote instead of waiting for hours at PennDOT? Virginia, for one, is implementing a voter ID law that does not require a photo ID—utility bills, employee cards, and the like will suffice. While that law requires voters to show that they are who they say they are, it doesn't erect serious hurdles to hundreds of thousands of voters. There's no reason to require so much more; it only serves as yet another hurdle to marginalized voters.

Of course, for Pennsylvania Republicans, that is the point.

You may also like