Three-quarters of a million Pennsylvanians may be denied a chance to vote in November unless they can come up with an acceptable form of identification, a tally released by the state suggests.
In a move lawmakers said would deter fraud at the polls, the Republican-led Legislature passed a law in March requiring voters to have a photo ID to obtain a ballot. A comparison of registration lists and state Transportation Department records showed 758,939 people don’t have either a driver’s license or an alternative state ID, the secretary of the commonwealth said.
Backed by Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, the law was enacted as similar measures in Republican-led states drew criticism from Democrats who say they disenfranchise minority, poor and young voters. Those groups have tended to support Democrats. A voter ID law in Texas has been blocked by the U.S. Justice Department, while in Florida, which also has a photo ID requirement, federal officials have sued to halt state attempts to bar non-citizens from voting.
“There is a real risk that poor people and minority voters, among others, will be discouraged from participating,” said Daniel Tokaji, who teaches at Ohio State University’s law school in Columbus and helps direct its election-law center. “These laws are likely to have a greater impact on Democratic-leaning groups of voters. It’s pretty obvious that’s why Democrats oppose these laws, and Republicans support them.”
In Pennsylvania, unless voters have an acceptable alternative, such as a military ID, or obtain an ID before Nov. 6, as much as 9 percent of the state’s electorate may be denied a chance to cast a ballot in the presidential election. The swing state went for President Barack Obama, a Democrat, 55 percent to 44 percent for Republican John McCain in 2008.
Almost 25 percent, or 186,830, of those who lack a driver’s license or an alternative transportation department ID are registered to vote in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s largest city by population, according to the state. Obama won 83 percent of the city’s vote in 2008. He carried the state by 620,478 votes, fewer than the number who may be barred from the polls Nov. 6.
Republicans taking control or boosting majorities in state capitols drove “more restrictive” election laws, Tokaji said yesterday by telephone. At the start of 2011, as legislatures elected in November 2010 took their seats, only Georgia and Indiana required a photo ID to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
By November, at least 30 states will require voters to show identification to obtain a ballot, according to the conference, a nonprofit research organization. Most won’t require a photo ID. Three more -- Mississippi, New Hampshire and Wisconsin-- have enacted such laws and are in varying stages of implementing them or litigating challenges.
Court action has barred enforcement of such laws in Wisconsin and Texas, where the Justice Department blocked a voter ID measure under the Voting Rights Act. The agency said the Texas statute would have a discriminatory effect on minorities. A South Carolina law that revised an earlier photo ID requirement was also rejected under the Voting Rights Act.
In Pennsylvania, the American Civil Liberties Union sued in state court to overturn the law. State Representative Frank Dermody of Oakmont, the Democratic leader in the House, wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder July 2 asking him to block the statute. Dermody said it is designed “to suppress the vote of traditionally Democratic constituencies, such as minorities, the elderly and individuals with disabilities.”
Carol Aichele, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, said all voters who aren’t in the transportation department’s database will receive letters informing them of the law and how to get free identification cards so they can vote. Dermody said to get the state ID, voters need documents proving who they are, and cited examples of several residents who haven’t been able to obtain birth certificates or other acceptable papers.
“The goal of this law is to allow every legal voter to cast a ballot, but detect and deter anyone attempting to vote illegally,” Aichele said in a statement. Acceptable forms of identification can be from accredited Pennsylvania colleges, state care facilities, U.S. passports and government employers.
Proponents of the law “have been unable to produce a scintilla of evidence that voter fraud -- and particularly voter impersonation fraud -- is a problem in Pennsylvania,” Dermody said in his letter to Holder. “We need your help to protect the most sacred right we have as American citizens -- the right to vote.”