Hey—remember Pennsylvania's voter-ID law? The really strict one that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters? The controversy over the law died down in mid-August, when a commonwealth court ruled the law would stand. Since then, however, the voting rights advocates who'd filed suit appealed to the state's Supreme Court. There, on Thursday, justices heard the case. But it garnered little in the way of headlines.
You know you’re in a fledgling campaign office the moment you step off the street and into one of the plainest buildings in Germantown, a mostly black Philadelphia neighborhood that contains several Colonial landmarks. Along garish, peach-colored walls are maps of every inch of the city: council districts, wards, divisions, recreation centers. Mismatched tables sit empty, waiting for soon-to-be-installed phones that volunteers will use to call number after number. In one corner of the back office, there’s even a double megaphone ready to perch atop a van and spread the message.
Rather than touting a candidate, though, this campaign’s volunteers will be spreading news that they hate: Hundreds of thousands of registered voters in Philadelphia, and hundreds of thousands more across the state, are in danger of losing their voice in the November election. Welcome to the world of the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, made up of 140 organizations—churches, labor unions, civic groups—which began training volunteers in July. The group’s job is to let voters know that, thanks to a law passed in March, they will have to carry a government-issued picture ID to the polls to ensure that their vote counts. The coalition will also help voters who lack the proper ID to acquire one—a process that is, in some cases, time-consuming and complicated.
We’ve heard a lot about debates over strict voter-ID legislation this cycle, but there’s an even more pressing problem in some parts of the country: intimidation at the ballot box. In addition to pushing for these voter-ID laws—which require citizens to show a government-issued ID before casting their ballot—conservative groups like True the Vote have alleged widespread voter fraud, recruiting volunteers to act as poll watchers and look for any signs of illegality from voters. True the Vote has also pushed volunteers to comb through the voter rolls for signs of fraud. It's left many worried about the likelihood of scaring voters away from the polls.
It all begs the question: What laws are on the books to protect the right to vote?
Of all election outcomes, state legislative races are the likeliest to have a direct impact on the lives of voters. But you wouldn’t know it from the national press. The morning after the 2010 elections, Americans woke up to headlines about a Republican landslide; most of those stories focused on Congress, where a new GOP House majority promised to fight President Barack Obama tooth and nail. What didn’t make so many front pages were Republicans’ historic victories at the state level, as the party wrested control of 21 house and senate chambers from the Democrats. North Carolina had its first Republican senate since 1870; Alabama hadn’t seen a Republican legislature since Reconstruction.
Last June, Ohio’s Republican state legislators sought to pass an extremely strict voter ID law, with deeply disturbing implications for minority voters. It would have been among the strictest in the nation, requiring voters to show a government-issued ID with virtually no recourse for those lacking the necessary documents. But the opposition came from an unexpected place—Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted.