“This is a Jim Crow voter-suppression bill. . . . I know it, you know it, we all know it. I’m just not afraid to say it.” Strong words by Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D -Phil) on the heels of final passage in the House this week of the PA voter-ID bill, which Governor Jim Corbett rushed to sign into law Wednesday evening, but not at all uncharacteristic of the bitter debate that has enveloped the issue here and nationwide.
Rep. Larry Curry (D-154) said on the floor of the House on Tuesday: “In March 1965, I was in Selma, Alabama as part of the civil rights movement to protect the right to vote. We were there amidst a great deal of state approved violence to stand for the voting rights of African-Americans. It is now March, 2012, 47 years later and I am once again standing to protect voting rights, but this time of PA citizens . . . When I think back to those days in Alabama – the police and their tear gas and the snarling dogs – I remember that we knew we were were fighting simply for the right of Americans to vote. It was a noble cause and we knew in the midst of that fight that we would overcome. Well, We have an opportunity now to continue in that direction . . . We ought not to fall for a political gimmick that will disenfranchise a number of our citizens. I urge you – vote against this bill.”
So it’s not surprising that voting rights advocates are heading to court to upend the law in time for the November 6 general election. A broad coalition of advocates led by the ACLU and including the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) and a number of other organizations yet to officially sign on are putting together a legal team and will be filing suit against the Commonwealth of PA in the coming weeks, possibly before the April 24 primary. Their goal: demonstrate that citizens/voters will be disenfranchised by the voter ID law and overturn it, according to Andrew Hoover, Legislative Director of the ACLU.
“The law is a voter suppression law aimed at the people that we serve – low income, minorities and senior citizens,” said Jennifer Clarke, Executive Director of PILCOP and one of the attorneys on the case. Their vote will be suppressed, and voting is a fundamental core right of being an American citizen. And when a law is designed to suppress the vote, something has to be done about that. This is about being an American.”
The law calls for a trial run in the primary, in which poll workers will ask voters for a form of ID that will be required in November. Those without it will still be eligible to vote on April 24. However, Hoover is doubtful that spring training will result in significantly better preparation for the World Series in November. He thinks the “soft rollout” for the primary is unlikely to be effective because turnout will be far lower than for the general election, resulting in fewer voters learning first-hand about the new rule when they go to the polls. (Primary turnout was 25 percent in 2004 and 37 percent in 2008, while the November turnout was 71 percent in 2004 and 73 percent in 2008.)
The realities of the impact of the law on the ground, and how to respond to minimize resulting problems at the polls apparently have yet to take root with elections officials. In Montgomery County, poll worker training sessions will include a section on new voter ID requirements, but training is not mandatory and attendance tends to be sparce. Whether the county will invest in public education to inform voters of the new requirements or hire additional poll workers to minimize wait times for the general election are open questions, according to Election Board Chair Leslie Richards. Richards suggested that social media, primarily facebook, would likely be employed by the county to get the word out.
The PA Department of State is planning a public education campaign funded by about $5 million through the federal Help America Vote Act. Staffing the polls, however, is solely a local function and can be a problem, even excluding the issue of voter ID. In 2008, for example, about 17 percent of election districts in Montgomery County were understaffed, based on a study by the Election Reform Network.
“It’s going to be chaos at the polls. The lines will be long, and those who don’t have ID will have to be issued a provisional ballot,” said perhaps the Commonwealth’s best known judge of election, Marybeth Kuznik of Westmoreland County and executive director of VotePA, an advocacy organization. “Issuing a provisional ballot takes time, because you need the poll worker, the judge of elections and one other person to take the time to confirm the provisional ballot and then the voter must sign affidavits as well,” she told PA Independent in a story on Tuesday.” The County Commissioners Association of PA also warned legislators this week that the new ID requirements would result in longer lines at the polls.
Meanwhile, the PA ACLU has seen a dramatic increase in phone calls and emails from people who think they or a loved one will be disenfranchised by the voter ID law. “There’s been a noticeable uptick (in complaints) after the Senate passed the bill. “They’re aware now that this is real,” said Hoover.
Earlier in the week a Wisconsin court struck down that state’s new voter ID law, which came the same day the U.S. Department of Justice blocked Texas’voter ID law. The action on the Texas law was based on federal jurisdiction under the Voting Rights Act. Wisconsin and Texas were two of the seven states that passed voter ID laws after Republicans swept statehouses in the 2010 elections.
In his decision, Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess wrote: “Because the Wisconsin Constitution is the people’s bulwark against government overreach, courts must reject every opportunity to contort its language into implicitly providing what it explicitly does not: license to enact laws that, for any citizen, cancel or substantially burden a constitutionally guaranteed sacred right, such as the right to vote.”
This reporter is the co-founder of the Election Reform Network and author of the poll staffing study cited.