Voter ID Proponents Taking Back Their Own Arguments

Since Pennsylvania’s Voter ID law passed last March, proponents have been steadily walking back each of the arguments they used to support it.

Early on, PA Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele wrote that:

A Pennsylvania Department of State analysis shows 99 percent of eligible voters currently have acceptable photo IDs, and proposals under discussion will likely expand the list of photo IDs that can be used.

Governor Tom Corbett’s administration stopped using the 99 percent figure after it was revealed that Aichele’s office had reached it by simply dividing the number of photo IDs the PA Department of Transportation has issued by the voting age population — a horribly imprecise measure, considering many people are issued photo IDs that are not eligible to vote, thus inflating the percentage.

Then, this past July, the PA Department of State released new numbers, saying that around 758,000 Commonwealth voters may lack the proper ID needed to vote this November. That’s more than 9 percent of all voters in the Keystone State.

Now, there has been some debate over the validity of these numbers as well. Namely, the state’s computers appear to have returned ‘false hits‘ for people whose names contained spaces (such as “Mary Sue”), were hyphenated (“Smith-Jones”), or who used nicknames on one document, but not the other (such as using “Frank” on your voter registration, but “Francis” on your ID).

Yet the 758,000 figure is still significant, especially when one considers that the Department of Transportation has (to date) only issued between 3,000 and 3,500 new Voter IDs. That is less than 0.5 percent of the number of people the Department of State says could potentially be missing the appropriate form of identification now needed to vote — it might as well be a rounding error.

Even if one thinks that the 758,000 figure overstates the problem, the gap between ID-less voters and new IDs issued is large enough to dwarf any concerns of inaccuracy. Imagine for a moment that 95 percent of the 758,000 people identified by Aichele’s office actually do have IDs. Under this scenario, there are still 37,900 people that do not have the proper identification — and PennDOT has so far only issued new IDs to about 9 percent of that new number.

Then there are the 906,000 people that the Department of State says have a driver’s license that will have been expired for more than a year by Election Day. As the Voter ID law requires the identification to be valid with a year, these people may face some difficulty.

Also, University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto estimated in his testimony to the PA Commonwealth Court that more than 1.3 million voting-age Pennsylvanians could lack the necessary identification. It is important to note the difference between Barreto and the Department of States’ figures. Barreto looks at the whole voting-age population (which includes individuals that can register, but have not yet), while the state’s figures refer only to those currently registered to vote.

Furthermore, the issue of people’s names being different on voter registration when compared to IDs raises another concern: vote challenging. Poll watchers (or other voters) can challenge someone’s vote if, for instance, the name on an ID does not match the name listed an individual’s voter registration. Perhaps it is the difference between your legal name, and the name you go by in everyday life.

Barreto testified that more than 4 percent of eligible voters could have a “name listed on their ID [that] did not match that which would appear on the voter registration records.” This could possibly leave them open to a vote challenge.

The Committee of Seventy describes the process that follows:

The challenged Voter is put under oath by the Judge of Elections, after which they must sign a Challenge affidavit and produce one qualified Voter of the Division willing to sign the Affidavit alleging that the challenged voter is who they claim to be. After this process the challenged Voter may vote on a machine.

This process has a history of being used by political parties looking to gum up the works for opposition voters. The ultimate goal here is the same as that of Voter ID: make it as difficult as possible for people to vote.

With Voter ID, the hope is that the cost of underlying documentation (birth certificate, Social Security card), transportation, and long lines at the DMV will prevent numerous people from being able to comply with the law.

Barreto estimates that around 27 percent of eligible voters that lack a photo ID also lack some of the documentation needed to get a new Voter ID card. And, as the Brennan Center notes, 24 percent of Pennsylvania’s voting-age population live “more than 10 miles from nearest ID-issuing office that is open more than two days a week,” and 10 percent do not have access to a vehicle.

Indeed, as the Philadelphia Inquirer has documented multiple times, logistical problems abound:

Nine counties in Pennsylvania lack full-service PennDot photo and licensing centers, and officials are sometimes misinformed about where their closest full-service photo center is.

Witnesses that testified in the court case against the Voter ID law described “long lines, short hours, and misinformed clerks” at PennDOT offices.

These barriers do not need to prevent all of the opposition from voting, just enough to deliver 51 percent of the vote. In a tight election, such chicanery could make or break a race, and the Voter ID law only exacerbates this.

Barreto also noted that a substantial portion of voters are unaware of the new restrictions (34 percent) and almost all (99 percent) believe they have a valid ID. Of course, many of these voters are likely mistaken, given that we have already established that a large number of people do not have the proper identification. Keep in mind that only specific forms of photo ID are permissible under this law, namely:

  • PA government-issued ID (must have an expiration date and be currently valid, or have expired less than a year ago)
  • U.S. passport (must have an expiration date and be currently valid)
  • Military ID
  • Student ID (must be issued by a Pennsylvania college, have an expiration date and be currently valid)
  • Care facility ID (must have an expiration date and be currently valid)
The latter two, it should be noted, often lack expiration dates, and thus would not be considered valid for voting (though many colleges have begun printing expiration dates on their IDs in an attempt to ensure their students do not lose their voting rights). An out-of-state student whose only ID is a student card issued by an out-of-state college is out of luck.

The second major argument for Voter ID that supporters have since retracted is that the law is necessary to prevent voter fraud and ensure the integrity of elections. I have dealt with this fallacy at length in previous blog posts (here and here) and opinion columns (here and here), but the short of it is that numerous studies and investigations (including by the Bush Administration) have found that voter impersonation fraud appears to be relatively rare.

News21, a Carnegie-Knight journalism initiative, recently undertook possibly the most extensive analysis of voter fraud cases in America to date, filing public records requests for such information in every state. In Pennsylvania, they found that third party organizations and election officials were accused of perpetrating voter fraud more often than actual voters, and that voter registration fraud (which, under previous law, would not actually result in any illegitimate votes unless the fakers show up to the polls with identification) was the most prevalent form of voter fraud. Voter impersonation fraud, they contend, is nearly non-existant in the Keystone State and on a national level.

Even the Republican National Lawyers Association, which supports the law, identified only 400 cases of various kinds of voter fraud in the entire country over a decade’s time, and most of these were not voter impersonation, and thus would not be solved by Voter ID. And even those few cases may overrepresent the problem. A News21 analysis of the RNLA’s list reports that their “consisted mainly of newspaper articles about a range of election issues, with little supporting evidence of actual in-person voter fraud.”

The Corbett Administration and PA General Assembly Republicans vehemently maintained that voter impersonation fraud is a real and pressing problem. When he signed the Voter ID law in March, Governor Corbett stated:

Some have argued that there is no evidence of voter fraud. I don’t necessarily agree with that.

So it was surprising when the attorneys defending the Voter ID law in court agreed that they did not know of any voter impersonation fraud in Pennsylvania and “will not offer any evidence or argument that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November in the absence of the Photo ID law.”

That voter impersonation fraud is rare should be fairly intuitive; the rewards of voter fraud are very low, while the costs are potentially very high. Being caught trying to perpetrate voter fraud could mean a $10,000 fine and up to five years in prison, while only yielding one extra vote in an election that will likely be decided by hundreds of thousands. University of Essex government professor Sarah Birch noted in a March 2012 Economist article that “most manipulators make only sparing use of blatant election-day frauds,” opting instead to change election laws as a way to deter opponents.

To many, PA House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said as much at a Republican State Committee meeting in June while touting GOP achievements in Harrisburg:

Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.

Indeed, the Voter ID law disproportionately impacts voters that have tended, in the past, to vote for Democrats.

PoliticsPA reported on an AFL-CIO analysis of state data that broke General Assembly and Congressional voting districts down and ranked them according to which ones would be most affected by Voter ID. The analysis was fairly unsurprising:

With just one exception, Democrats represent each of the districts with the highest rates of voters who lack PennDOT ID: the top 5 in Congress, the top 10 in the state Senate, and 19 of the top 20 in the state House, including each of the 8 House districts where over 50 percent of voters in 8 districts lack PennDOT ID. Republicans represent the 5 seats in Congress, 5 seat in the state Senate, and 10 seats in the state House with the lowest rates of voters who lack ID.

(Click here if you would like to see how your own districts fare.)

A map found on PoliticsPA further specified which areas of the state would be most impacted by Voter ID: cities. Specifically, the strongly Democratic Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would be the most affected.

From PoliticsPA.

But that’s just a breakdown of parties and places. At its core, the Voter ID debate is about people — namely, the elderly, minority, young, low income, and handicapped people that Voter ID would disproportionately impact. In this context, it makes sense that citizens living in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would be hit hardest — both cities have markedly larger minority and low income populations than the state as a whole, and are hubs for large universities.

A recent Azavea study of Philadelphia voters found strong correlations between white, black, and Latino populations and the probability of having a valid ID that can be used to vote this November. That is, white voters were quite likely to have the necessary identification, while black and Latino voters were not. If history is a guide, it would perhaps be better to avoid policies that disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters.

Barriers to getting photo IDs could be especially high for seniors. The PA Department of State’s figures suggested as many as 1 in 4 voters over 80 could lack the necessary identification. Getting such voters to (and having them wait in line at) a PennDOT facility presents certain difficulties that Secretary Aichele herself has acknowledged. Additionally, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center released a report criticizing PennDOT for poorly implementing new policies related to Voter ID. In particular, the report described lack of signage, workers offering incorrect information, and limited PennDOT hours.

Of course, such issues were discussed even before the bill passed into law. If General Assembly Republicans had been worried about such barriers to complying with their new law, they could have passed a number of proposed amendments that would have:

  • Extended DMV hours,
  • Made available more locations at which to secure a Voter ID, and
  • Provided for mobile units to help people register.
They both prevented such amendments from coming up for a vote, and rejected the ones that did.

Currently, the Voter ID law sits in the PA Commonwealth Court, where it waits for Judge Robin Simpson to announce his ruling. As this case deals with the fundamental right to vote, the state will have to prove that it had a compelling case for passing Voter ID legislation, that the law was narrowly tailored to achieve its goal, and that it was done in the least restrictive way.

To me, at least, it seems that the state has failed to prove its case. And if the admission by the lawyers defending the law that they neither know of nor expect pervasive voter impersonation fraud is any indication, it may seem that way to the state as well.



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