Looking down at an intersection in Northeast Philadelphia, a blown-up image of a woman holding a Pennsylvania driver’s license is flanked by the Spanish slogan: Si Quieres Votar Muéstrala (If you want to vote, show it).
The state-sponsored billboard’s message may leave some voters confused about what’s needed to cast a ballot this year, after a court ruling last week blocked a requirement to produce an approved photo identification at polling places. Television advertisements highlighting the law that passed this year also were broadcast as recently as Oct. 6.
Lingering ads about the law in the Republican-led state may suppress votes on Nov. 6, opponents say, while just 3 percentage points separated the presidential contenders in a recent Pennsylvania poll. Advocates have fought the measure, questioned election-fraud billboards in Ohio and challenged voting restrictions in battleground states from Florida to Wisconsin, sowing confusion even where laws haven’t changed ahead of a national election that is too close to call.
“You want to be sure all voters are getting an accurate message, a consistent message,” said Ellen Kaplan, policy director at the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit government watchdog group. “The worst problem in this case might be if voters still believe they need a photo ID to vote, and if they don’t have one, they may say, I may as well not go to the polling place.”
Backed by Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, Keystone State lawmakers passed the voter-identification bill in March. It was one of at least 12 measures requiring approved identification to cast a ballot put in place or updated since 2011. Supporters say they’re needed to prevent voter fraud. Critics say the rules will disenfranchise minority, poor and young voters, who tend to support Democrats.
Advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have challenged the laws, preventing some from taking effect. Courts have stayed or rejected such measures in three other states, Texas, Wisconsin and South Carolina.
Legal challenges to the laws across the U.S. are causing confusion in states such as Florida, where no changes have been made, said Cedric McMinn, executive director of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party. McMinn said he’s explained to some voters that they can get a ballot by showing any of several different types of identification, including credit or debit cards with photos.
“We’re going to have some problems,” McMinn said.
Florida, which has sought to remove ineligible voters from registration rolls, represents 29 electoral votes. Combined with Ohio, with 18 and Pennsylvania, with 20, the three states provide a quarter of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency.
Ohio voters backed Obama in 2008 by 262,224 votes. Former President George W. Bush won there by about 118,600 votes in his 2004 re-election bid, topping Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry 50.8 percent to 48.7 percent, state records show.
Studies from Pennsylvania and independent groups there suggested that hundreds of thousands of voters would lose access to the polls if they didn’t take steps to obtain an acceptable identification or correct the records. The state said records showed as many as 759,000 eligible voters might be excluded.
Voters in the Keystone State, where Republicans swept to power in the 2010 elections, supported President Barack Obama in his first bid for the White House in 2008. Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s campaign got a boost this week when a Siena College Research Institute poll showed him trailing Obama 43 percent to 40 percent, with 12 percent undecided.
On Oct. 2, a Pennsylvania judge said that while election officials can request identification from voters in the Nov. 6 polling, those who can’t produce it can cast ballots that will count. The law remains in effect, with the identification provision held in abeyance. An Oct. 10 ruling by a special three-judge panel in Washington blocked a similar statute from taking effect for next month’s voting in South Carolina.
The photo-identification portion of the Pennsylvania law may be enforced in future elections unless Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson decides to strike it down in a case brought by the ACLU.
Pennsylvania is revamping its voter-education campaign, with new ads set to run this week, said Matthew Keeler, a spokesman for the Department of State. He disagreed with those who said the lingering images would produce any confusion.
“With all the organizations and everyone coming out to help individuals get forms of ID, I believe it’s really brought voting to the forefront of the discussion and it will help improve turnout,” he said.
The state started running TV spots during the last weekend of August in a handful of areas, with distribution extended statewide on Sept. 10, Keeler said. Stations were asked to pull the ads after the court ruling, and removing them from scheduled airings takes time, he said.
“There’s no way for us to go into a television station and pull the ads ourselves,” Keeler said.
The Philadelphia billboard ad has been up since Sept. 3, and won’t be revised for “a couple of weeks,” according to Jim Cullinan, a New York-based spokesman for Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings, which owns the sign.
Some state residents have said they saw the old TV ads as recently as Oct. 6, the Seventy group’s Kaplan said.
Pennsylvania won’t send postcards informing voters they aren’t required to present identification at polling places, Keeler said. Mailers were sent in September notifying 8.3 million registered voters saying that would be necessary.
Letters were sent to about 750,000 state residents in July, notifying them that their names on voter registration records didn’t match those on file with the Pennsylvania Transportation Department, Keeler said. The notices advised recipients to either correct the records or obtain substitute identification before trying to vote, he said.
Some ads may stay in place if they convey the theme that approved identification will be requested at polling places and that it would be needed in elections after Nov. 6, Keeler said.
The state has set aside $5 million to educate the public on the voter-identification law, which includes broadcast time from now until Election Day, Keeler said. So far, $1.23 million has been spent on TV, $210,000 on radio and $119,296 on ads on buses and billboards, he said.
More than half of the the state’s broadcast allotment, 60 percent, remains to be used, along with at least 90 percent of its radio time, Keeler said.
Skeptics such as John Jordan, director of civic engagement at the Pennsylvania State NAACP, remain doubtful that state officials will set voters straight before election day. Jordan said he doesn’t believe that taxpayer money will be spent to tell voters that they won’t need identification at the polls next month.
“We’re talking about the same people we’ve been fighting since March,” Jordan said of state officials. “We still feel that this was targeted toward certain voting groups, the largest voting groups that voted in 2008: women, seniors and students.”
Ivelesse Coroussett, a 30-year-old clerk at Rebeka Envia Centro De Llamadas, a store across the street from the Northeast Philadelphia billboard, said she thought she’d be required to show her driver’s license when she votes next month.
Robert Smallwood, 67, a neighborhood resident who was walking by the billboard, said he knew he wouldn’t have to show identification at the polls. He said the sign is an example of an effort to confuse voters. “A lot of people don’t really know what’s going on.”
The case is Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 330-md-2012, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg).