On the eve of the July Fourth holiday and after a year of political skirmishing surrounding PA’s voter ID law, the Corbett Administration released data that laid bare the potential impact of the law on voter participation in November.
Despite continued assurances from Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele during the legislative battle that the proportion of already registered voters that lack the required photo ID would be in the area of one percent, numbers disclosed late Wednesday indicated that more than nine percent of PA’s 8.2 million registered voters lack the required ID.
The Department of State, in conjunction with the PA Department of Transportation (Penn DoT), the agency responsible for issuing drivers licenses, by far the most widely used acceptable voter ID, compared the state’s registration rolls with Penn DoT ID data bases and found that 758,939 voters could not be matched with Penn DoT IDs.
Coupled with House Majority Leader Mike Turzai’s recent assertion that the law, passed in March just prior to the PA primary, “is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of PA,” the political coloration of the voter ID requirement, long considered by critics to be a purposeful impediment to key blocks of traditional Democratic constituencies exercising their right to vote, has taken a decided Republican red.
“This thorough comparison of databases confirms that most Pennsylvanians have acceptable photo ID for voting this November,” said Aichele in the press release.
Voting rights advocates have a different view. “When the legislature was considering this bill, it was under the impression that only 89,000 registered voters didn’t have Penn DoT IDs, and now that number is nearly nine times as large,” election law attorney Marian Schneider, an Advancement Project consultant and member of the legal team in the case brought by ACLU, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters and others challenging the voter ID law on state constitutional grounds. The Commonwealth Court hearing on the suit gets underway July 25 in Harrisburg.
For some perspective, the margin of victory in PA for Barack Obama over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election – not considered a close race - was 620,478 votes, or more than 138,000 votes less than the number of potential voters that did not match up with Penn DoT IDs.
According to the Department of State, all voters identified as not having a Penn DOT ID number will be contacted by letter this summer, reminding them of the new voter ID law, what IDs are acceptable for voting purposes, and how to get a free ID if they don’t have one. County election directors will also be provided with the names and addresses of voters in their counties who did not match records in the Penn DoT database.
Calling the 9.2 percent statewide figure for those lacking Penn DoT IDs “a huge amount,” Montgomery County Election Board Chair Leslie Richards announced a public meeting for July 26 to educate voters about the requirements of the new ID law. The meeting, to be led by the Committee of Seventy, an elections watchdog group based in Philadelphia, will be designed to answer questions, promote the resources available for securing IDs and learn about problems about which the election board may be unaware that may impede the ability to cast ballots by eligible voters. Richards said that both Robert Kerns, Chair of the Montgomery County Republican Committee and Marcel Groen, Chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, have been contacted and support the effort.
Montgomery County has about 45,000 voters who do not have Penn DoT IDs, 8.3 percent of the county registration roll based on current figures. Philadelphia tops the list with 187,000 or 18 percent of registered voters who do not have matching Penn DoT IDs and Allegheny County is second with 99,000 or 11 percent without matching IDs.
In addition, Montgomery County has formed a Voter ID Working Group, whose purpose, said Richards, is to keep track of the changing context of the voter ID law and reach out to senior citizens, academic institutions and low-income community organizations. The 13-member group, co-chaired by Karl Myers and Jonathan Hugg of the law firms Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young and Thorp Reed Armstrong, respectively, includes: Diane Taylor-Alleyne, Associate Dean of Students at Arcadia University; Peggy Lee Clark, Executive Director of Government Relations and Special Projects at Montgomery County Community College; Sharon Williams, who hosts voter ID clinics in Norristown; and Teri Simon of the Wynnewood Civic Association.
The state’s comparison analysis did not take into account other acceptable forms of ID under the law, including those from accredited PA colleges or universities with expiration dates, care facilities, military IDs, valid U.S. passports and other photo IDs issued by various levels of government, including those for employees. All identification used for voting must have an expiration date and be current, except for PA driver’s licenses or non-driver photo IDs, which are valid for voting one year past their expiration. Retired military identification with an indefinite expiration date is also valid for voting purposes.
The state believes that the figures for voters without IDs are likely inflated, though, since they include those who are on “inactive” status, which means having not voted for at least five years. They also claim that the process likely failed to pick up matches due to a variation in names between the voter registration and Penn DoT databases, even though a functional ID may exist. Finally, they point out that the figures don’t take into account those voters who have qualified IDs other than from Penn DoT.
Such arguments, though, can be imprecise and difficult to quantify. For one thing, “inactive” voters can and do vote. According to the Montgomery County Election Board, almost 6,000 of them did, in fact, vote in 2008, which suggests that a significant proportion of “inactives” would be at risk for being barred from voting due to a lack of an ID. While there are unquestionably a number of acceptable forms of ID other than from Penn DoT (see above), most people, for example, who have passports or government employee IDs probably drive cars and would have a match in the data base. Also, few care facilites reportedly issue photo IDs, although a larger proportion of those with legally valid student and military IDs may not be showing up in the state study.
The problem of variation in names is another anomaly, one that may cut both ways. While the match process – using exact first names, last names and birth dates – may have missed some with Penn DoT IDs, the new law itself requires that IDs “substantially conform” with names listed on the voter rolls, according to Schneider. The law, she says, increases the possibility that women who may have registered under their maiden name years ago but whose current ID uses their married name may have a problem at the polls without updating their registration, despite a clear ID photo.
For more information on voter ID, visit the state website, http://www.votespa.com or call 1-877-VOTESPA (1-877-868-3772).