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Changing a Law to Win an Election?

The Main Line Times’ “Notes from Narberth” columnist wrote a piece on August 7 (“Narberth zoning meeting; more on voter-ID need“) using Al Schmidt’s recent report on voting irregularities in Philadelphia as proof of need for a Voter ID law. You may read that here.

My response (“Changing a law to win an election?“) was published on the Main Line Times’ website on August 11. You may read that on the Main Line Times’ site here, or below.


One of the most interesting things about Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt’s report on “voting irregularities” is not what it says, but how it is being used. Proponents of Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID have praised the report as damning evidence of pervasive voter fraud – which is ironic, considering that a reading of the report gives no such impression.

First of all, Schmidt’s report is not a scientific study, and says nothing about how extensively voter fraud occurs – it only identifies seven types of voting irregularities. And of those seven kinds, the Voter ID law would stop only one. Whether the other six constitute legitimate problems or not is largely irrelevant to the Voter ID debate.

The problem Voter ID actually addresses can be boiled down to one question: is the person at the polling place who he says he is? Under current law, voters must prove who they are the first time they vote at a new polling place, and may use a variety of means to do so. Voters can face harsh punishments for not complying with election law ($10,000 in fines and 5 years in prison for voter impersonation) while they get little in return (one extra vote in an election decided by hundreds of thousands).

Faced with this information, you might conclude that voter impersonation rarely happens. All available evidence suggests you would be right. Numerous studies and investigations – including by the Bush Justice Department – have all reached this conclusion. The attorneys defending the Voter ID law in court recently agreed as well. So it is not surprising that Voter ID supporters have relied upon a single case: “the mysterious case of Joseph Cheeseboro” that the August 5 “Notes from Narberth” column referenced.

In any given election, Mr. Cheeseboro is little more than a rounding error. The same cannot be said of the more than 758,000 Pennsylvanians who may be disenfranchised by this law – a group disproportionately made up of elderly, minority, student and handicapped voters. That figure is larger than President Obama’s 2008 margin of victory, and to date new Voter IDs have been issued to less than 0.5 percent of that number.

Of course, even one illegal vote is one too many, but any voting system will leave room for error. The fundamental question at the Voter ID debate’s core is how to resolve the natural tension that arises from wanting to both keep elections accessible, while preventing any potential fraud.

Opponents of Voter ID do not, as the “Notes from Narberth” column contends, “think black people are too dumb to figure out how to get a photo ID.” Rather, we are concerned because the process of obtaining the underlying documentation and standing in line for several hours at a PennDOT center makes voting less accessible to legitimate voters, especially elderly and handicapped ones. It also opens the door to further chicanery, by providing another venue for vote challenging at the polls.

But perhaps most concerning of all is the nagging suspicion that the law was aimed to, as House Majority Leader Mike Turzai boasted, “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” When you have to resort to changing the law in order to win an election, there is something wrong.


Voter Meddling Would Be PA’s New Voter ID Law

The Main Line Times’ “Notes from Narberth” columnist wrote a piece on June 14 (“Don’t believe the rhetoric: Voter ID is fair to all“) defending Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID law as “a no-brainer” and attacking the many problems with the law as “phony.” You may read that column here.

My response (“Voter meddling would be Pa.’s new Voter ID law“) was published in the following week’s Main Line Times. You may read that on the Main Line Times’ site here, or below.


The June 14 “Notes from Narberth” column’s ardent defense of the new Voter ID law (“Don’t believe the rhetoric: Voter ID law is fair to all”) is fundamentally flawed.

At a basic level, I would question whether it is appropriate to compare the procedure required to attend the Penn Relays with that of voting. The latter, after all, is both a civic duty and a right, whereas the former is a private sports event.

Even putting these reservations aside, the column relies much too heavily on anecdotal evidence. It may, indeed, be true that “over 39,000 people, primarily African-Americans,” were able to show some form of photo identification in order to attend the Penn Relays. But even if every single one of those persons were black Philadelphians, that is still only 6 percent of the city’s black population. What about the other 94 percent? Could any of them be lacking a photo ID?

The short answer is yes. State and local figures are hard to come by, but national statistics on which populations generally lack the identification now required to exercise the constitutional right to vote in Pennsylvania are available. As it turns out, certain populations are far more likely to lack the appropriate identification: 25 percent of African-Americans, 15 percent of those making below $35,000 per year, 18 percent of senior citizens, and 20 percent of young voters.

There are many reasons these people may lack the kinds of identification that the law now requires. Perhaps they live in the city and have little use for a car. Perhaps they are elderly and no longer drive. Or perhaps their drivers’ licenses were taken by the state, for any number of legitimate reasons, ranging from underage drinking to failing the vision and medical testing the Department of Transportation administers randomly to drivers over 45. Surely, the right to participate in the democratic process should not be contingent upon such things?

As for handicapped Pennsylvanians, there are no available statistics on how many of these citizens lack the appropriate identification, but it is not a stretch to assume if someone cannot physically drive a car, they would both lack a driver’s license and also face formidable obstacles to acquiring a Voter ID card, such as transportation and the long waits associated with DMV offices.

It is also important to note here that only specific forms of photo identification are allowed under the Voter ID law – namely, government-issued photo IDs, Pennsylvania college IDs, or care facility IDs. Of course, a key problem is that some forms of ID that at first would appear valid under this law are actually barred because it requires a visible expiration date. As a result, most veteran and college ID cards will not be acceptable.

There is also the financial cost to consider as well: implementing the law has been price-tagged at around $11 million, at a time when Governor Corbett is insisting on deep cuts in education.

But surely there are huge benefits to a Voter ID law that would outweigh these objections? Surveying the evidence, one would be forced to conclude otherwise. Perpetrating the very specific form of voter-impersonation fraud this law claims to target is already incredibly difficult and subject to huge penalties. The risks of up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine certainly do not outweigh the benefit of a single extra vote in an election likely to be decided by thousands. Simply enforcing the law, as it existed before this Voter ID legislation, would have been enough to ensure the integrity of our electoral process without disenfranchising thousands of Pennsylvania voters.

As The Economist magazine noted last March, voter fraud is actually quite rare, but “a more frequent tactic is to alter election laws.” For an example of such meddling, one need look no further than Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID law.

Narberth Boro takes on climate-change challenge

“Narberth Boro takes on climate-change challenge”
By: Michael Gaudini

Narberth is a small half-square-mile town just outside of Philadelphia. With only 4,233 residents at last count, it is a mere fraction of the entire United States population. Yet despite its size, or maybe because of it, Narberth is taking steps on issues that have stalled in Congress — climate change and energy efficiency. And it all began with one young woman. …

Read the rest of the article at

When Tradition Trumps The Message

The following opinion column was published in the Main Line Times on May 8, 2009 and in the Delco Times on May 11, 2009.


Excommunication is the greatest punishment of the Roman Catholic Church, and with its latest sentencing, the Church has sent a clear message that tradition supercedes Jesus’ message. On April 26, in a ceremony condemned by the Catholic Church, two Roman Catholic women were ordained as a priest and a deacon respectively. Regarding the ordination, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia has said: “I am concerned pastorally for the souls of those involved” and commented on the automatic excommunication the two ordained women and the person performing the “pseudo-Ordination.” Admittedly, he described the role of women in Catholicism as “necessary and irreplaceable”, but in the same sentence also says women’s role is “not linked to the ministerial priesthood” – an exclusion simply because of gender.

While I don’t claim to have the ability to see into whatever heaven may exist, I can imagine Jesus sitting up there right now, shaking his head and lamenting the fact that his followers have missed the point. Jesus’ message was one of love, acceptance, and equality, yet the interpretations of the Church hierarchy have founded a tradition of female exclusion from the priesthood that is out of step with this core message and with contemporary sensibilities. I’ve heard the arguments – that none of Jesus’ twelve apostles were women, that the priest as male is a reflection of Jesus’ own gender, and that the role of priest is as fundamentally male as childbearing is fundamentally female – and for this reader, this reasoning has fallen flat.

Some of Jesus’ most loyal disciples were women. According to Luke’s Gospel, the very first people Jesus appeared to after the resurrection were his female disciples. Furthermore, I find the suggestions that being a man makes the priest more naturally representative of Jesus and that the priestly role is fundamentally male to be outdated interpretations that privilege tradition over message. After all, the Bible says of humans: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” It would seem to me that this passage says men and women were both created in God’s image, not that men have the advantage because God is male.

If a woman is qualified to deliver Catholicism to a community and has the desire to serve as a priest and perform the rites involved with the mass, why should her progress be impeded by something as natural as gender? At this point, is it really about the good news, or does it come down to upholding an outmoded tradition? Of course, tradition can have its positive points, but not in cases such as this, where its presence obstructs the message. Maybe, once it comes time for that second coming, Jesus should return as a woman and appoint twelve female apostles. Of course, by that time one would hope that people will have discarded this archaic notion of an exclusively male priesthood. One would hope.