Pennsylvania Voter ID Law In Jeopardy As Next Court Case Opens

Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Shaky As State Efforts Go On Trial
BETHEL TOWNSHIP, PA - APRIL 24: Voters sign in to vote during the Republican primary election at Bethel Springs Elementary School April 24, 2012 in Bethel Township, Pennsylvania. Turnout is expected to be low as Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continues his campaign as the presumptive GOP candidate. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)
BETHEL TOWNSHIP, PA - APRIL 24: Voters sign in to vote during the Republican primary election at Bethel Springs Elementary School April 24, 2012 in Bethel Township, Pennsylvania. Turnout is expected to be low as Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continues his campaign as the presumptive GOP candidate. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

The state of Pennsylvania's ability to get every would-be voter a government-issued photo ID by Election Day will literally be on trial Tuesday.

The hearing before Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson comes after the state Supreme Court last week instructed him to block a new law requiring ID at the polls unless he determines "that there will be no voter disenfranchisement" arising from its implementation.

Opponents of the law have said the state can't possibly prove that case, as the law's entire reason for existence is precisely to make it harder for the poor, members of minority groups, students, and the elderly to cast their ballots, and in that way suppress the Democratic vote.

Republican backers of the law have said it was intended to fight voter fraud. But in-person voter fraud -- the only kind voter ID would reduce -- is almost nonexistent.

Back in August, Simpson upheld the law -- one of the strictest among similar bills recently passed by GOP legislatures around the country -- ruling that it wasn't unconstitutional in theory.

But now the question is one of implementation, and whether the state is fulfilling its promise to educate voters about what they'll need at the polls this year and get them the IDs they need if they don't have them. Signs are that it isn't.

The main provider of photo IDs is the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation -- PennDOT. PennDOT has only issued a fraction of the IDs estimated to be necessary.

News articles abound about how hard it's been for would-be voters who lack ID -- say, a 91-year-old World War II veteran or a Philadelphia homeowner who rides the bus -- to deal with PennDOT.

It also turns out the state is actually blocking attempts by various Democratic officials who have come up with ways to get IDs to those who need them more effectively.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, a Democrat who represents the Pittsburgh area, recently took to his local website to complain that top Pennsylvania officials denied his request to create neighborhood centers by using state offices -- including legislators' district offices -- to distribute photo ID.

"This clearly demonstrates to me that the administration fails to recognize the importance in making the process of obtaining a voter ID easier and more convenient for those who lack the necessary photo identification," Fontana wrote. "For many voters who do not possess a driver’s license, getting themselves to a Driver’s License Center is a serious challenge."

With the state balking, Pittsburgh's Allegheny County government is stepping in, taking advantage of one of the law's few loopholes: that it recognizes photo IDs from state-affiliated colleges and senior care facilities, as well as drivers' licenses.

While the intent of the law was that such IDs be used solely by students and senior center residents, the community college and hospital centers in the county are instead issuing IDs to any state resident who wants one.

The state government also isn't making it easier for local officials to track down the registered voters who lack ID.

The state initially calculated potential "non-matches" by comparing voter rolls and PennDOT IDs, and found a staggering 750,000 people who were registered, yet had no PennDOT record. But that list turned out to be deeply flawed. Among other things, it failed to match people with spaces, hyphens or multiple capital letters in their names.

A more accurate list would allow local officials and groups to better target their efforts -- but the Secretary of State's office denied the request by Philadelphia's top elections official, Stephanie Singer, to provide such a list.

"It's a way to make the efforts of the people on the ground more effective," Singer said. "And they are not doing it."

The state has taken some positive steps. For voters born in Pennsylvania, for instance, PennDOT officials will now verify the existence of their birth certificates electronically, while they wait, rather than sending them away to get a hard copy.

And Matthew Keeler, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said officials are working hard "to make sure that everyone's aware of the law with enough time that if they need an ID, to get an ID."

An education campaign that already includes TV commercials, print ads and mailers will grow to include robocalls in October, Keeler said. "We're going to keep going. We're going to keep reaching out every way we can."

The state's top election official -- a Republican -- recently said she expects the state's "aggressive public relations campaign" to actually increase turnout.

But the confidence among state officials is not well founded, Singer said.

"Because everyone they know knows about the law, they think everybody knows about the law," Singer said.

"Anyone who says the state is doing a great job, I would say: What have you measured that would lead you to believe that? What evidence you have? It's one thing to have an impression based on the people you know and the people you talk to. But do have any evidence of that?"

Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters of Philadelphia has launched a major effort to help senior citizens get the ID they need. Its president, Rachel Lawton, said the law has created a very effective barrier to voting.

"Someone has to really care about voting, rather than just go around the corner to the polling place where they've been going for years," Lawton said.

Seniors who don't have ID "really have to jump through some hoops" to get it, Lawton said. And the state doesn’t seem to be doing very much to make it easier. "In general, they haven't extended hours or added more employees," she said.

Ashindi Maxton, a Service Employees International Union official, oversaw a recent survey of 75 voters trying to obtain IDs across the state. "People who vote and don't have ID are pretty much always characterized one of four ways," Maxton discovered: They are ill; they are people with disabilities; they are elderly; and/or they are poor.

"For a significant number of people, there was a tremendous barrier they had to go through," Maxton said of their experiences with PennDOT.

A report based on the survey described elderly and disabled voters having to return to the PennDOT multiple times after long waits -- four hours or more -- and then being told to come back; sick, elderly and disabled voters foregoing food or medications because of lack of timely or available restroom facilities; elderly, disabled and poor voters being misdirected to different locations or lines for "voter ID" by PennDOT officials; and lower-income voters being asked to pay a fee for voter ID when the law stipulates that the ID should be provided at no charge.

"The process is anything but easily accessible," said Nancy Spencer, a United Steelworkers official coordinating the Pennsylvania vote. "The implementation is basically a mess. There's no way that the state can honestly say that no voter is being disenfranchised."

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