The Real Reason for a Voter's Photo ID

Recently, Governor Corbett has endorsed legislation which would require every Pennsylvanian to present photo ID each time they voted -- regardless of how long they had been voting at their poll.
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Recently, Governor Corbett has endorsed legislation which would require every Pennsylvanian to present photo ID each time they voted -- regardless of how long they had been voting at their poll. They could not vote without ID even if the poll workers knew them to be who they said they were. If a poll worker allowed someone to vote who was a close personal friend or neighbor and had been voting at that poll for 30 years, they would be committing a crime and risking a prison sentence.

The governor claims that this bill is necessary to prevent widespread "voter fraud." However, the truth is that this bill would do nothing to stop any voter fraud that actually happens in our state. It would however disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of long-voting Pennsylvanians who, conveniently enough for our Republican governor, tend to vote Democratic.

In support of this bill, Gov. Corbett's Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele points only to allegations that the group ACORN committed improprieties while registering voters. Assuming the truth of those allegations, this bill has nothing to do with, and would have no impact on, voter registration practices. The only form of "fraud" voter ID would prevent is voter impersonation. If someone claims they are someone they are not, in order to either vote more than once or vote when not eligible, voter ID would theoretically stop them. But, voter impersonation almost never happens.

A five-year study conducted by President Bush's Justice Department found that out of over 300 million votes, there were only 86 cases of individual voter fraud nationwide, and most of them involved immigrants who misunderstood their eligibility.

In Pennsylvania, since 2004, there have been over 20 million votes cast and four convictions for fraud, all of which involved people registering when not eligible. None of these cases involved someone pretending to be someone they were not. Secretary Aichele herself, in a previous Philadelphia Inquirer article is quoted as saying: "I've worked in polling places since 1981, and I've never seen voter fraud."

It is important to remember that fraudulently impersonating a voter is already a felony. Risking years in prison to gain an undeserved vote seems like a low-gain, high-risk crime -- which is probably why it never happens. In addition, a voter already has to show proof of who they are the first time they vote in a new precinct. Thus, under current law, Pennsylvania has significant and apparently effective protections in place to ensure the integrity of the voting process.

The Corbett administration then claims that a Department of State (Secretary Aichele's department) "analysis" shows that "99 percent of eligible voters currently have acceptable photo IDs." I took the liberty of calling the department and asking how that figure was calculated. It turns out that they took the total number of photo IDs PennDot has issued and divided by the number of eligible voters in Pennsylvania.

The problem with this is that there are many thousands of currently valid IDs issued to people who have died, or have moved, or are legal, non-citizen immigrants or are not eligible to vote for other reasons. Thus, it is misleading and irresponsible to connect the numbers of IDs and voters in this context. After I publicized this critique of their methodology, the Department of State changed their claim of how many people currently have valid IDs from "99 percent" to "the vast majority." They do not define "vast majority" but it clearly means something significantly less than 99 percent.

It is more likely that the number of Pennsylvania voters without photo IDs is close to the national figures, which are startling. According to the Washington Post, 11 percent of all Americans lack photo ID, including 20 percent of voters under 29, 15 percent of those earning under $35,000 per year, and a full quarter of all African-Americans.

What all of this means is that to solve a problem that literally does not exist in our state, we are going to disenfranchise approximately 700,000 Pennsylvania voters. These voters -- poor people, African-Americans and students -- tend to disproportionately vote Democratic. This appears to be yet another cynical effort to rig future elections by people who have no respect for the democratic process and whose only concern is winning. It is ironic that this effort is occurring in the state where representative democracy was born.

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