Ten Miles Square


July 13, 2012 11:01 AM Pennsylvania Is Key to Republican Vote-Blocking

By Jonathan Alter

Other than the candidates, the most important person in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign so far might be the billionaire Sheldon Adelson, or maybe one of the Koch brothers.

But now it looks like it could be Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson. If he upholds a new Pennsylvania election law at the end of this month and the decision survives appeal, hundreds of thousands of voters, most of them Democrats, may be disenfranchised.

That, in turn, could put Pennsylvania, once considered a blue state, into the Romney column and swing the election.

The Pennsylvania story offers another example of the rank cynicism of those who favor democracy everywhere in the world except the U.S.

After I wrote last month about the Republicans’ well- orchestrated efforts to suppress Democratic voting around the country, I received many critical e-mails saying that people are required to have photo ID to get into buildings, cash checks and perform other daily tasks, so why not require photo ID to vote?

Fair enough, but what these critics don’t understand is that in states such as Pennsylvania, the kinds of photo ID valid for everyday tasks will no longer be good enough for voting. The goal of these laws isn’t matching names and faces to protect the integrity of the ballot box. The goal is to beat Democrats.

Other Shenanigans

State Representative Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania House majority leader, let the cat out of the bag at a Republican State Committee meeting about the party’s legislative accomplishments. “Voter ID — which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done,” he told the applauding crowd.

Lest you think the new Pennsylvania law is merely like gerrymandering congressional districts or the other shenanigans undertaken by both parties for political advantage, consider what happened next.

In the run-up to passage of the bill, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele promoted a study estimating that 99 percent of the state’s registered voters already have valid photo ID from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that would allow them to vote. In other words, the whole thing was no big deal.

It turned out that 9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million registered voters — 758,000 people — did not have ID from PennDOT. Very big deal.

Given that the state says more than 150,000 are inactive voters, that there’s normally some confusion over names and addresses, and that some nondrivers hold U.S. passports or carry photo ID showing they are active duty military or work full-time for the government, the actual number is probably smaller. For the sake of argument, let’s say that 500,000 Pennsylvanians are in danger of having their right to vote stripped away.

That’s a half-million people, some of whom have voted for years, now discouraged from voting or potentially disenfranchised because they don’t drive and don’t know they need to go downtown and fill out more paperwork before they can cast ballots.

Yes, those half-million people can get a PennDOT ID free, so Pennsylvania is technically not guilty of applying a poll tax, as Attorney General Eric Holder charged Texas with doing this week in a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But tell me again why it’s so different than the grandfather clauses, literacy tests and other ways that whites kept blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote in the Jim Crow South?

Poll Tax

Oh yeah, it’s not blatant racism, only a huge power grab from hundreds of thousands of people who live overwhelmingly in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and are too poor to own cars.

Are they mostly black? We don’t know yet because Aichele, in defiance of the spirit of public disclosure laws, is dragging her feet on releasing the list. Philadelphia City Commissioner Stephanie Singer says that’s because Aichele knows any sign of racial discrimination would help the plaintiffs in their suit against the law, which goes to state court July 25.

“People tell me, ‘We don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a driver’s license,’” Singer told me. “I tell them, the reason you don’t know anybody like that is that they don’t leave their neighborhoods.”

In fact, many of the disenfranchised poor have other types of photo ID, but those are not valid for voting under the new law. Some people have photo ID bus cards issued by a metropolitan transportation authority. No good. Others work for city contractors and have city-issued photo ID that gets them into secured buildings. No dice, unless they work for the government directly. Veterans have photo ID that gives them entry into Veterans Affairs facilities. Nope. Can’t use it to vote, even if you’ve voted since the Korean War.

Under pressure, student ID was allowed, but only if colleges affix tens of thousands of stickers with expiration dates. No out-of-state college ID is valid, even for students on the Pennsylvania voter rolls. What an inspiring message for young people, whose only offense is that they tend to vote Democratic.

Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points in 2008, but some polls show him up by only five points this time around. Pennsylvania might now be in play. If it goes for Mitt Romney, it’s hard to see how he loses the election.

Although Obama campaign officials say they aren’t worried yet, they’re making contingency plans for a huge voter outreach program. “We will pursue all legal remedies but we cannot and will not depend on legal action alone,” Bob Bauer, the counsel to the campaign, told me.

Obama field organizers are hoping that this grim news will pump up volunteers, who will show residents how to obtain valid ID and register more people in the process. But many of the hundreds of thousands of endangered voters are presumed to be elderly, and it won’t be easy getting them to a PennDOT office to obtain a new card.

This election isn’t just Democrats versus Republicans. It’s about whether we want more democracy or less.

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Jonathan Alter a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the author of one book on Franklin D. Roosevelt and two on Barack Obama.


  • sue on July 13, 2012 4:58 PM:

    truly amazing how all the ALEC-inspired legislation in PA has been ignored by the national media for almost 2 years.

    we have experienced a real revolution in our state while everyone was busy watching WI and Ohio-the total passivity that made that possible is what really freaks me out

  • Snarki, child of Loki on July 13, 2012 8:53 PM:

    Heard another wrinkle today:

    PA voters born in Puerto Rico (US citizens!) without photo ID are going to have a horrible time, because they need to get birth certificates to get the photo ID, and Puerto Rico invalidated all outstanding birth certificates in 2010 as part of a huge effort against identity theft.

  • appletree on July 14, 2012 11:34 AM:

    Also keep in mind that you need a birth certificateand social security card to get PennDot ID for the first time. If youare born inPa., the cost is $15. There are very few centers to obtain a PennDot ID. I work with the poor and homeless for 38 years,and my efforts to help them receive proper voting ID has been overwhelming. Although many political organizations havew vowed to have mechanisms to over come these obstacles, I see no evidence of these efforts. Sigh, God help us.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 15, 2012 1:56 AM:

    Although the courts will probably invalidate this law, it would be funnier if they'd let it stand and require all voters to submit to the same process for a separate voter ID. It might not be such fun and games if Republicans with cars had to wait at the voting equivalent of the PennDot centers to get their voting card.

  • Jasperinboston on July 17, 2012 6:37 PM:

    *****But now it looks like it could be Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson. If he upholds a new Pennsylvania election law at the end of this month and the decision survives appeal, hundreds of thousands of voters, most of them Democrats, may be disenfranchised*****

    SURELY the Obama DOJ would challenge this law in federal court, right, if a Pennsylvania State judge upholds?

  • Jon on July 18, 2012 9:30 PM:

    I just don't understand this argument that showing ID to vote is so bad. Alter mentions that many of these people have bus passes. Why do you have to own a car to get to a PennDot office? Take the bus. There is also plenty of time to get the word out to people that will be affected and to help them. Outreach to these people and getting them the proper ID might even make them more likely to get to the polls. They will have less anxiety going to the polling places and now have a contact with someone to help get them there. Mobility was a large part of Alter's argument. Getting an ID is not some impossible task. And claiming people in urban areas wont be able to figure it out is as if they are not smart enough is offensive. You have to show ID for everything these days and to insure no ID is required to vote is just asking for fraud. And to compare people to get something as simple as an ID tto Jim crow laws is a huge stretch. I have plenty of friends without cars that have non-driver IDs and it was simple to get. I just haven't heard a single good case for why not having an ID to vote is a good idea. Why Eric Holder fights voter ID laws yet required attendees at the NAACP conference to show their ID to hear him speak is baffling to me.

  • factchecker on August 02, 2012 8:51 PM:

    Voting is a fundamental right, but its not just a question
    of ID, the GOP wants to only make certain ID's acceptable,
    beyond that restricting voting time and registration drives
    are partisan politics, of course the missing argument of the story is that it is possible that many rural, elderly,
    whites are denied the right to vote, but given the fact
    that they are rallied up to their loyal GOP base, they may get the ID.

    However in Indiana, a very red state, obama still won, however of course factors were different, also there have been very few instances of voter fraud, you don't even need an ID to have a gun, although msnbc was a bit biased in its comparison since background checks are needed although not a private sale.

  • BernieO on August 04, 2012 8:05 AM:

    Ironic that while the instances of voter fraud are so rare they are almost non existent, the clear, intentional cases I know of are prominent Republicans. For example Ann Coulter used her parents' Conn address for voting even though she owned and lived in a Manhattan town house for years. She did it again in Florida. She listed her address as that of her real estate agent when she registered then voted in that precinct instead of the one in which she really lived. She also used the real estate agent's address for her driver's license. All these acts are illegal.

    Jon Huntsman claimed the governor's mansion in Utah as he residence when he voted even though he was no longer governor.

    But the best example is Mitt Romney claiming to live in his son's allegedly unfinished basement in MA when he had been living in California for two years and had sold his MA home. Apparently he was really gung ho to vote for Scott Brown!

    Where is the outrage? Or the legal consequences for what Republicans see as an egregious crime aimed at overturning elections.