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Government Officials: Elected vs. Appointed

A county official in Pennsylvania recently made headlines when he decided to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, defying a 1996 law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

D. Bruce Hanes, the county official in question, explained his actions by saying that he believed that the law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and that he “decided to come down on the right side of history and the law.”

Hanes is the Register of Wills in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.[1] Although many Pennsylvanians may not recognize the position, it is one of several county offices they elect every four years in odd-year elections. Pennsylvania has a history of electing minor offices, such as coroner. The state has done so at least since its 1776 Constitution, and has continued to do so with each subsequent redrafting.

Normally, these offices and the political campaigns candidates for these offices run are fairly low profile, overtaken by county commissioner, mayoral, and city council races.[2] However, Register of Wills Hanes burst into the media spotlight in a big way when he announced he would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Daily News writer Stu Bykofsky succinctly summarized opposition to Hanes’ actions in a column he wrote criticizing the Register of Wills:

Civics 101: The people elect representative who write the laws which are enforced by the state and, if necessary, confirmed by the courts.

Of course, American democracy has never really functioned in this manner. As far back as President George Washington’s administration, the executive branch intruded upon the legislative branch by proposing new laws and pushing it’s own legislative priorities.

President Andrew Jackson even went so far as to ignore a court decision he disagreed with, supposedly responding that “[Chief Justice of the Supreme Court] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”

Today, President Barack Obama’s administration has decided to prioritize which laws it has the resources to enforce more vigorously than others.

In Pennsylvania specifically, the General Assembly officially desegregated schools and public accommodations in the late 1800s, but local governments and officials refused to implement these laws and actively circumvented them for almost a century.

Of course, none of this contradicts Bykofsky’s main point. Bykofsky is not saying his “Civics 101″ lesson of separate branches with separate powers is how government actually works in practice; rather, he is saying that this is how government works best in an ideal world. And, as a columnist for a major publication, it is his role to hold public officials accountable to the ideal.

However, I would also say that any discussion of Hanes should consider the political structure within which government exists. Bykofsky may be correct on a theoretical level that government works best when separate branches do not infringe upon each other’s authority, but ignoring the political incentive structure provides only an incomplete picture of the situation.

Hanes’ actions speak directly to the difference between elected and appointed public officials, and the very different incentive structures they face.

Elected positions are the ones people often think of when they think of government: president, governor, mayor, legislator, county commissioner, etc… These are the officials whose names show up on the ballot on Election Day.

Appointed officials are more insulated from politics than elected officials (relatively speaking, because even appointed officials are not totally insulated). In general, there are two kinds of appointed officials: political appointments and merit appointments.

Political appointments, as the name suggests, are more reactive to the politics of the official who has appointed them and holds the power to fire them. So, for instance, a governor who does not believe in regulating oil and gas companies would appoint a Secretary of Environmental Protection that would be friendlier to such companies when deciding how to enforce the law.

Most appointed governmental positions today are merit appointments, which means that employees are hired and promoted based upon their ability, rather than their political ideology. It also means that they are protected from being fired simply due to their political beliefs. This structure attempts to focus their efforts mainly on administering the law and insulate them from political concerns as much as possible.

The United States used mostly political appointments (also known as the “spoils system,” because the winning party would reward its friends with jobs) until the late 1800s.[3] Today, however, most appointed positions are merit-based.

One of the key differences to keep in mind when thinking about elected vs. appointed officials is who undertakes the hiring and firing and how. Generally, the system works like this (though there is some variation): voters elect the elected officials who appoint political appointments who hire the merit appointments.

The incentives for each of these positions are vastly different. Elected officials must court voters in order to ensure re-election, and are thus responsive to their interests. Political appointments must serve the elected officials’ interests in order to keep their positions. Merit appointments, however, because of civil service laws insulating them more from politics, have more leeway to administer the law in a way they believe is fair.

This takes us back to the Montgomery County Register of Wills. The question I pose here is not whether Hanes was right to issue same-sex marriage licenses.[4] The question is whether we can expect elected officials like Hanes to take these sorts of actions, simply due to the fact that they are elected and respond to very different incentives than other officials.

Can we expect elected officials to respond to what they believe to be unjust and unconstitutional laws in a way they think their constituents would approve?

Or, to put it another way: can we ever reasonably expect elected officials to be mere administrators? To this latter question, history certainly seems to suggest we cannot, unless the electorate wants an administrator.

If we, as a society, then, think that officials like Hanes should only administer the law, then perhaps we should consider either automating these positions (thus removing any judgement calls whatsoever) or else transitioning them to merit appointments.[5]

If we wish to keep these positions elected, then the remedy already exists: other branches and levels of government.

Bykofsky presents an image of governmental branches as confined to separate spheres. I would argue that in America, branches of government were not designed to fill completely separate spheres so much as they were designed to battle against each other for influence — and in doing so, provide a check on the other branches’ power.

In this system, it is not only up to Hanes to police himself. It is up to the county commissioners, to the judicial system, to the governor, to the General Assembly, and, ultimately, to the voters to all check Hanes if they believe he is doing something wrong.

So, if you believe Hanes erred in issuing licenses to same-sex couples when he believed that the law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, then the remedy is for another branch or level of government to push back. And that is exactly what has happened, with the Corbett Administration suing to stop Hanes.

This is not to say that all county officials will take similar actions because they are elected. Many likely will not. But we should not be surprised when elected officials act according to their incentives. Sometimes we may agree with them, other times we may not. Either way, the existing political system already provides the means for opponents to counter them.


[1] The Register of Wills, for his part, is responsible mainly for recordkeeping and other administrative services related to wills and marriage licenses.

[2] As an aside, one of the 2011 Montgomery County Coroner candidates pointed out how many autopsies he had performed and how many death certificates he had issued as part of his campaign.

[3] President Andrew Jackson is closely associated with the history of the spoils system in the federal government. Although presidents before him had made political appointments, he did so on a much larger scale. In Pennsylvania, the commonwealth’s second governor, Thomas McKean, introduced the spoils system to his state’s government. Reformers began to pass civil service reform laws in the late 1880s to switch from the spoils system to merit appointments. In 1881, a disgruntled office-seeker assassinated President James Garfield after he was not rewarded with a patronage position. In response, Congress passed and President Chester Arthur signed a major civil service reform bill, the Pendleton Act.

[4] You might think, like Bykofsky does, that he was wrong to do so. You might think, like State Senator Daylin Leach does, that Hanes was right to do so because Hanes swore an oath to protect the Constitution and he believes the same-sex marriage ban to be unconstitutional.

[5] The Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based local government watchdog, has already argued that these roles should be appointed rather than elected — albeit, on efficiency grounds.


Bruce Castor Gets It Right.” Stu Bykosky. Philadelphia Daily News.

PA Official Legally Right to Issue Same-Sex Marriage Licenses.” Sen. Daylin Leach. Huffington Post.

Roadmap: Needless Jobs.” Committee of Seventy.

Elections Matter. Redistricting Matters More.

Poor redistricting. Given the tremendous impact redistricting has on all levels of government, voters simply do not tend to give it too much attention.

There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this. For one, redistricting — the process by which legislators redraw the political boundaries defining what towns and communities they will represent at the next election — just isn’t a ‘sexy’ issue. It deals with technical issues like adjusting districts to account for population shifts and make sure each lawmaker represents about the same number of constituents as his or her colleague. It doesn’t easily lend itself to the types of human interest stories journalists use to pull readers into articles on, say, immigration, war, abortion, and many other high-profile issues.

It’s difficult to put a face to redistricting.

Also, unlike other issues, redistricting is only really pushed into the spotlight once a decade. Although voters have to live with its effects at every election, redistricting is really only brought up in discussion when legislators engage in it, after the U.S. Census information is released. Any disgust or disapproval inevitably dies down soon after, leaving lawmakers with little incentive to reform the system.

Redistricting allows lawmakers to redraw their districts in ways that benefit them. (Image from Governing Magazine's website.)

In fact, not only do lawmakers have little incentive to consider redistricting reform, they actually have every reason to actively oppose it, because reforming redistricting would dilute their own power to choose their constituents by drawing voters in or out of their districts.

For anyone who has watched the American version of the political drama House of Cards, the characters bring up redistricting several times as key to the Democrats’ efforts to hold onto the U.S. House of Representatives. They pin their hopes on a special election for Pennsylvania governor — because without a Democratic governor to oversee Pennsylvania redistricting, the Democrats are sure to lose a number of its U.S. House seats, and thus lose control of the House.

House of Cards is fiction, but the stakes are just as high in real life, as well. It was one of the first things Republicans in Texas did in 2003 once they took full control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, allowing them to lock down their control. Democrats, knowing full well the power Republicans now wielded, broke quorum and fled the state rather than allow the legislature to meet and redistrict. Eventually, though, the Republican majority passed its redistricting plans, turning the 17-15 Democratic majority in Texas’ U.S. House delegation to a 21-11 Republican majority.

Pennsylvania serves as a reminder of the power of redistricting as well. Pennsylvania Republicans have controlled the redistricting process for decades. Most recently, that control paid off in 2012. Even though Democrats swept every office up for statewide election and received more than half of all votes cast in the state for U.S. House, Republicans not only kept their majorities in the state legislature, they actually gained a U.S. House seat.

After an election in which a majority of Pennsylvanians voted for a Democrat for U.S. House, Republicans still wound up holding a full 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 U.S. House seats – or about 72 percent of Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation.

(It should come as no surprise, then, that Pennsylvania Republicans have also put forward plans in recent years that would distribute electoral votes in presidential elections according to redistricting, rather than popular vote. For instance, if one of these proposals, put forward by PA Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Gov. Tom Corbett, had been in place in 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney would have lost the popular vote to President Barack Obama 52 percent to 47 percent — but Romney still would have taken home more electoral votes. Under this plan, Romney would have received 13 electoral vote to Obama’s 7 votes.)

Redistricting has very real effects on both state and national politics. The immigration legislation pending in Congress is a fairly good case study.

Although a rough consensus seems to have formed around immigration reform and the U.S. Senate passed immigration legislation by a healthy and bipartisan 68-32 vote, the bill has stalled in the U.S. House. This seems contrary to the post-2012 election narrative that Republicans are reevaluating their Hispanic outreach efforts, considering Hispanic voters tend to support comprehensive immigration reform. But it makes perfect sense once you consider U.S. House members’ narrow constituency.

After the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans swept into power in state capitols all over the country — just in time for redistricting. House Republicans’ seats are safe. Unlike U.S. Senate and presidential candidates, House Republicans do not have to worry at all about swaying Hispanic voters. Their districts have been specifically designed in a way to ensure they win the general election.

Instead, House Republicans have to worry about other Republicans challenging them in primary elections. As a result, they have to tack harder to the right to avoid offending their base voters and to fend off any primary challengers. That means opposing the immigration reform bill, which is generally unpopular with conservatives. This is not to say passing the bill is impossible, only that it is made much more difficult due to the perverse incentives created via redistricting.

And perhaps that is the hook that journalists need to raise awareness about and put a human face on redistricting — by connecting redistricting to other issues, such as the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. At that point, it becomes less about lines on a map and more about the very real impact redistricting has on American families and communities.


2013 Legislative Preview Issue Brief: Elections.” Gaudini, Michael; Proft, Lena; & Rocha, J.J. Center for Politics and Governance.

Redistricting Texas: A Primer.” Gaudini, Michael.

The War on Democracy: Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania.” Gaudini, Michael.

Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again.” Gaudini, Michael. Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

Reforming Redistricting.” Gaudini, Michael. Baines Report.

Republicans Win Fewer Votes, but More Seats than Democrats.” CQ Voting and Elections Collection.

Immigration Reform: Clearing the First Hurdle.” Economist.

What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.

Corbett-Pileggi Election Plan Bad For Democracy,” Gaudini, Michael. Main Line Times.

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?” Gaudini, Michael. Diniverse Major.


The Pileggi Electoral College Plan and 1960

In 1962, after the successive failures of both his presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, a weary Richard Nixon bid the press goodbye:

But as I leave you, I want you to know: just think how much you’re going to be missing. You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Of course, if Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi had his way, Nixon might not have spoken those famous words. He would not have had to: if Senator Pileggi had been in charge, Nixon might have beaten John F. Kennedy and become president in 1960.

I am referring, of course, to Senator Pileggi’s ill-conceived Electoral College plan (next session’s version, last session’s plan was defeated). The idea is simple: divide all but two of a state’ Electoral College votes up and award them to the candidates according to the percentage of the popular vote that they won. The candidate that wins the state then gets the extra two votes.

Take the 2012 election, for instance. President Barack Obama won about 52 percent of the popular vote to Governor Mitt Romney’s 47 percent. This gives President Obama 12 electoral votes (10 electoral votes for the popular vote, plus 2 more for winning state-wide).

This would not have changed the outcome of the 2012 election. Indeed, changing Pennsylvania alone might not have altered the outcome of most American elections. But it would have had an effect. For instance, in 2000, President George W. Bush’s margin of victory would have been larger, even though he still would have lost the popular vote.

But to really demonstrate how Pileggi’s system would work, imagine that his plan was in effect in all 50 states. Under this scenario, John F. Kennedy stands a good chance of beating Nixon in the popular vote, but losing to him in the Electoral College.

According to my calculations, the Electoral College votes come in like this:

  • 264 for Kennedy
  • 267 for Nixon
  • 6 Unpledged Electors

Those unpledged electors would have come from the largely Democratic Louisiana and Mississippi. But these states were part of the Southern, conservative wing of the Democratic Party — a wing that was suspicious of Kennedy and that Nixon would successfully court years later. It only would have taken 3 of those 6 to make Nixon president.

Can we say with absolute certainty that Kennedy would have absolutely lost in 1960? No. But it is surely a possibility. And a reason to be wary of any claims that Pileggi’s proposal is somehow fairer than the current system.


1960 Presidential Election Results: Pileggi Plan (Excel), Diniverse Major Blog.

Co-Sponsorship Memo, Dominic Pileggi.

Pileggi to reintroduce plan to change Pennsylvania electoral-vote system,” Philadelphia Inquirer.

Corbett-Pileggi plan bad for democracy,” Michael J. Gaudini (Main Line Times). *(This article refers to last session’s Electoral College plan)

What Would Have Happened in 2012 Under Gov. Corbett’s Election Plan?

Last session, Governor Tom Corbett and Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi unveiled a plan to change how Pennsylvania votes for president. Now that the 2012 election has actually been held, Pennsylvanians can see for themselves how that system would have impacted their votes.

But first, a bit of context. Americans do not vote for president directly. Instead, they vote through the Electoral College. In the Electoral College system, each state gets a number of electoral votes for president equal to their representation in Congress. Pennsylvania has 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 in the U.S. Senate, so therefore it gets 20 electoral votes.

States can choose to decide how they distribute those votes, but most states give all of their electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the statewide election. And, for most of American history, that has worked. Four times in the past, however, president have lost the popular vote but won the presidency: John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush.

The other key concept to keep in mind here is redistricting. Redistricting is the process by which legislators redraw political boundaries to account for population shifts. After all, people move, are born, and die every day. In order to make sure that elected officials represent about the same number of people, legislators redistrict their state and Congressional seats every 10 years using U.S. Census data. Without this, one official could end up representing several times as many people as another — even though they both only get one vote in Congress.

States redistrict differently. In Pennsylvania, Congressional redistricting is passed like any other bill. The General Assembly writes it and passes it, and the governor signs it. (There is a different system for General Assembly redistricting, but it is not relevant to this discussion.) There are also few prohibitions on how legislators can choose to redraw the political maps. Legislators cannot discriminate against voters based on race, but beyond that they generally have carte blanche.

This means that legislators can — and do — split up blocs of voters to help their party. If one area generally votes for Party X, legislators from Party Y can simply split up that area into numerous districts that each have a Party Y majority. Thus, Party Y maintains control by watering down Party X’s power — a process known as ‘gerrymandering.’

All of this means that whoever controls the General Assembly and the governorship essentially controls the political landscape of Pennsylvania. For the past few redistrictings, that has been the Republican Party. And so, they have drawn Congressional maps that benefit the Republican Party.

Here’s where Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan comes in. It would have split Pennsylvania’s electoral votes by giving them to presidential candidates according to which Congressional districts they win. The candidate to win the entire state then gets an additional 2 electoral votes, to make up the difference between electoral votes and Congressional districts. Of course, the Republican Party is drawing those same Congressional districts that they want to use to distribute electoral votes.

So, how would Pennsylvania have fared if this plan was in place for the 2012 election? Well, President Obama won the Pennsylvania popular vote about 52% – 47%. Under the current system, this means Obama got 20 electoral votes. Under Governor Corbett and Senator Pileggi’s plan, however, this means Obama would have gotten 7 votes, while Governor Romney would have gotten 13 votes.

To put it another way: under Governor Corbett’s plan, Obama would have won the popular vote in Pennsylvania, but lost the electoral vote. Fortunately for President Obama, this would not have changed the outcome of the 2012 election. Other presidents would not have been so lucky. Had the Corbett system been in place in 1960, for example, John F. Kennedy would never have become President of the United States.

Elections will always be partisan affairs; what they should not be is undemocratic.


Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Gerrymandering undermines democracy in Pennsylvania,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Redistricting Texas 2012: A Primer,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “What You Should Know About Redistricting in PA,” Diniverse Major.

Pennsylvania 2012 Election Results, CBS News.


I Voted For President! Now What?

Americans just do not like to vote.

For all of the talk of American democracy and the importance of the ballot, a strikingly small number of eligible Americans show up at the polls each November. Presidential elections, of course, see the largest level of turnout as a percentage of the voting age population. But for many Americans, that is it. The only time they see the inside of a voting booth is in a year that is divisible by four.

Take Pennsylvania, for example. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, about 64 percent of eligible Pennsylvanians showed up at the polls. That was a couple points above the nationwide turnout of about 62 percent.

Just two years later, those numbers were down to 42 percent for Pennsylvania and 41 percent for the United States. That election, significantly, decided which party would control not only the House of Representatives, but numerous state legislatures and governor’s seats. Last year, turnout in Pennsylvania dropped even lower, to 32 percent.

The Keystone State is no outlier; most states see similarly dismal figures. Why, then, is voter turnout so much lower in midterm and off-year elections? To simplify: the president. Or, rather, the absence of a presidential candidate on the ballot. The president is the only official elected nationwide in the United States. Campaigns for the office are fought over high-stakes national and global issues. The media cover the proceedings extensively.

And the perception that there will be relatively high voter participation, possibly reinforced by friendly conversation and media coverage, could have the effect of turning out more voters simply due to social pressure. That is, people go to the polls because they do not want to be the person caught not voting.*

All of this can make presidential elections seem more relevant than off-year or midterm elections. But these latter elections — which generally feature many state and local positions — often have a direct impact on voters’ everyday lives. State and local governments are the ‘boots on the ground.’ They are responsible for keeping your neighborhood safe, paving your streets, picking up your trash, educating your children, providing for poor, zoning your community, and countless other services that affect your daily life. As Hurricane Sandy has recently reminded many Americans, state and local governments also prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

Not only that, but these elections also have far-reaching political ramifications. I wrote about just such a situation in a 2011 election op-ed:

[I]n 2009, only 21 percent of registered Pennsylvanians cast their ballots. The majority of those select few chose Republican candidate Joan Orie Melvin as the next justice of the PA Supreme Court, solidifying a 4-3 Republican majority on the bench.


This year, as in the past, the Supreme Court was called upon to choose the tie-breaking member of the commission that redraws the legislative districts in the state every decade. The resulting map was a patchwork of gerrymandering and political protection submitted on a party-line vote in the Republicans’ favor. By carefully designating which group of voters elects which representative, this map will likely dictate the outcome of Pennsylvania’s elections for years.

And it had the potential to dictate the 2012 presidential election, as well. That year, Pennsylvania Republicans (swept into office in a midterm election) introduced a bill that would have changed the way the Commonwealth distributes its electoral votes for president. Instead of following the “majority wins” system that nearly all other states use, this plan would have split its votes according to Congressional districts that the Republicans themselves drew. To put that into perspective, had this system been in place in 1960, Richard Nixon would have bested John F. Kennedy for the presidency.

Midterm and off-year elections can have huge ramifications. Keep that in mind for 2013, and beyond.


*As an aside, Pennsylvania actually has a “Voter Hall of Fame,” where it recognizes those citizens who have cast their ballots every November for 50 consecutive years or more. If you have not gotten started on that yet, now might be a good time.


Michael J. Gaudini, “Corbett-Pileggi election plan bad for democracy,” Main Line Times.

Michael J. Gaudini, “‘Like’ the Vote,” Diniverse Major.

Michael J. Gaudini, “Think Off-Year Elections are Unimportant? Think Again,” Narberth-Bala Cynwyd Patch.

United States Election Project: Voter Turnout,” George Mason University.

Voter Hall of Fame,” Pennsylvania Department of State.

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.



Examining Al Schmidt’s Report on Voting Irregularities

Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt recently released a report on “voting irregularities” that Voter ID advocates have been touting as irrefutable evidence of rampant voter fraud in Pennsylvania. If true, this would be quite a bombshell, shoring up the case for the Voter ID law and directing contradicting strong evidence that shows voter impersonation fraud just does not occur.

So is it true?

Well, let’s take a look at how the report was produced and what it contains. Schmidt produced the report after non-scientifically examining 14 voting divisions in Philadelphia during the 2012 primary election. By “non-scientifically,” I mean that these divisions were not chosen at random, but were specifically selected because of discrepancies between city and state data.

You see, Pennsylvania keeps election records at both the state and county levels. Your county records that you showed up to vote at your local polling place. After the election, another list is compiled for the state. But there were a lot of people who voted, and thus a lot of room for error.

Accordingly, it is not uncommon for some people to be missed. This does not change the outcome of the election — the voting booths still recorded the proper amount — but it can cause a discrepancy between county and state records.

Schmidt’s report looked specifically at the divisions that had the largest discrepancies between county and state records, and discusses seven types of voting irregularities:

  1. Voting by non-registered individuals
  2. Voting by individuals in the incorrect party’s primary
  3. Divisions with more votes than voters
  4. Voting by individuals in the incorrect legislative district
  5. Individuals voting more than once
  6. Voter impersonation
  7. Voting by non-U.S. citizens

The first thing to notice about this list in the context of the Voter ID debate is that very few of them actually deal with voter impersonation fraud. This specific kind of fraud — which is the only type of voter fraud the Voter ID law would actually prevent — occurs when someone shows up at the poll and says they are someone that they are not in order to receive an additional, illegal vote.

The simple fact is that Voter ID would not prevent the vast majority of irregularities Schmidt’s report identifies. In fact, six of the seven types on this list would not be affected at all by Voter ID. That’s because most of these deal with what poll workers and Election Board officials do and how they do it. Even the single alleged case of a woman double-voting would not have been prevented by Voter ID, because in that instance the woman was who she said she was.

There is only one kind of voting irregularity on this list that Voter ID would actually prevent: voter impersonation fraud.

None of this is a reflection upon Schmidt’s report but, rather, how Voter ID supporters have used it to advocate for the new law. Though the report does not seek to quantify voter impersonation fraud (and only contains one example), it has nevertheless been hailed by the Voter ID bill’s sponsor, PA State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, as “[confirming] what leading Democrat opponents of voter photo ID and those in the mainstream media have been denying all along.”

I will discuss that instance of voter impersonation Schmidt identifies — the infamous “Joe Cheeseboro case” — but first, let us examine another claim often put forward by the Voter ID’s proponents.

Non-citizen voting.

Some of the law’s supporters contend that Voter ID will indeed stop widespread illegal voting by non-citizens. There are two responses to this: that there is little evidence that non-citizen voting is widespread, and that even if it were, this would not stop it.

To be clear, there are two basic types of non-citizens: legal and illegal. The arguments surrounding Voter ID have generally focused on the latter, probably because it plays into pre-existing fears of illegal immigrants as ‘law-breakers.’ The irony is that illegal immigrants are actually less likely to break the law. Indeed, the immigrant population as a whole are less likely to commit crimes, but especially undocumented ones. The reason is simple: illegal immigrants have to worry about being discovered and deported. Keeping out of trouble helps ensure they can remain in the country.

With that in mind, does it make sense that an illegal immigrant would want to risk deportation in exchange for one additional vote in an election that will be decided by hundreds of thousands? A quick look at the potential costs and benefits would suggest not.

Schmidt’s report does highlight an interesting aspect of non-citizen voting, though. Namely, that in the current system, election officials only discover if a non-citizen has voted after they have applied for citizenship. Once they apply, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) contacts the Board of Elections to determine if the individual has ever registered to vote. In the months between January 2012 and when the report came out in July, Schmidt’s office has been notified of 19 non-citizens that registered to vote. Of those, seven voted at least once in the last decade.

Again, the report does not seek to measure how often such fraud occurs, but other evidence suggests it is not at the epidemic levels Voter ID supporters have claimed. For instance, despite a vigorous campaign by the Bush Justice Department to uncover voter fraud, there were only 14 instances in which non-citizens were found to have voted illegally between 2002 and 2005.

Here’s the kicker: Voter ID would not have necessarily prevented these non-citizens from casting their ballots. After all, Voter ID does not require poll workers to check citizenship papers, only photo identification. And it is well within a legal non-citizen’s rights to get a driver’s license or other photo ID.

Remember, the seven instances in the Schmidt report were not cases of people showing up at the polls, saying they were someone they were not, and gaining one additional fraudulent vote. They were cases in which a person who was not legally allowed to vote had registered, shown up to the polls, demonstrated they were who they said they were, and then voted. Voter ID would not stop this.

As an interesting historical aside, numerous states (Pennsylvania included) originally allowed non-citizen voting in state elections. Nationalistic sentiment during World War I largely reversed these policies in the states and localities in which they remained, and in 1926 Arkansas became the last state to do away with it. However, even today various localities retain the authority to grant non-citizens a vote in local elections, and some continue to do so. Outside the United States, there are at least 22 countries in which non-citizens have some voting rights.

On the flip side of the argument, being an American citizen has not (and in some cases, still does not) always imply voting rights. Obviously, voting rights are subject to age restrictions, but they were also once subject to gender and race restrictions as well, despite citizenship status. Today, they are subject to one’s criminal record.

None of this is to say that illegal voting is permissible (it is not), nor is it to say that non-citizen voting is a preferable policy (it is not clear to me that it is). This is only to say that the citizenship-voting rights link is much more tenuous than it at first appears to be.

Currently, the first box on a voter registration application asks whether an individual is a citizen of the United States. Beyond that, however, the Election Board may only find out whether a voter is a non-citizen once they are contacted by CIS.

Some states, like Florida, have moved toward a tighter system in which they access a federal database (the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, program) in order to determine an individual’s immigration status, and then compare that to voter rolls. Although voter registration rolls need to be kept up-to-date and accurate, there is some concern that purging voter rolls through comparison with SAVE could accidentally disenfranchise eligible voters. The Brennan Center reports that states’ current voter purging processes are “shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.”

Schmidt himself is described as having reservations about hypothetically using SAVE in Philadelphia, and for good reason. The possibility of tossing eligible voters off the registration rolls is not something that should be taken lightly. Especially when the possible benefits of such a policy are actually fairly small. As described above, available evidence suggests non-citizen voting is fairly rare — something even the Corbett Administration admits.

Obviously steps should be taken to curb it (the Brennan Center has policy suggestions for ways to purge rolls responsibly and transparently), as long as the proper safeguards are in place to ensure that the process is not politicized and legitimate voters are not disenfranchised in the process.

The curious case of Joe Cheeseboro.

There is only one type of voting irregularity in Schmidt’s report that a Voter ID law could actually stop, and that is voter impersonation. Evidence suggests that voter fraud is rare (and that a more usual way to fix elections is changing election law to deter opponents). As with non-citizen voting, the Bush Justice Department vigorously sought out instances of alleged voter fraud, and found little.

Schmidt’s report, though Voter ID supporters have presented it as building a strong case for Voter ID, brings little new to the debate. It only identifies characteristics of voter impersonation fraud through the story of Joseph J. Cheeseborough.

Available evidence suggests Mr. Cheeseborough is the victim of voter impersonation — he is registered at two polling places, and has voted twice in the same election in the past.

It is telling, however, that many Voter ID supporters are still drumming up Mr. Cheeseboro as the damning evidence for pervasive voter fraud. His case proves that voter impersonation fraud has occurred, but not the level of pervasiveness (again, I would point to other studies that say it is rare). Mr. Cheeseboro’s single case, while provocative, is not even a rounding error — it for all intents and purposes does not exist, except on the most excruciatingly technical level.

This is not to make light of potential voter fraud. Obviously, one illegal vote is too many. But it is a foregone conclusion that any democratic voting process will leave some room for error. The question we must answer, as a society, is what safeguards are we willing to enact in order to fulfill the twofold aim of:

  • Ensuring the rights of citizens to vote and
  • Maintaining the integrity of elections.

Currently, there are strong incentives against voter impersonation. In order to successfully impersonate another voter, you must know that he or she is registered at that poll and has not yet voted and does not intend to vote today. If he or she is a new voter at that polling place, you must bring some form of identification. And you must know that the poll workers, who live in that community, will not know that you are not the voter you are impersonating.

Being caught could mean up to a $10,000 fine and 5 years in prison. On the other hand, getting away with it means one lousy extra vote in an election likely to be decided by hundreds of thousands of votes.

In that context, does it really make sense to spend $11 million to disenfranchise more than 9 percent of Pennsylvanians and more than 18 percent of Philadelphians because one man potentially lied about being Joe Cheeseboro? Or would it make more sense simply to enforce existing election law, and make appropriate changes that take care to disturb legitimate voters as little as possible?

Judge Robin Simpson of the Commonwealth Court will likely decide the answers to these questions on August 13, when he issues his ruling regarding the court case against the Voter ID law. And since PA Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin has recused herself from hearing cases pending the resolution of criminal charges against her, the PA Supreme Court could deliver a tied 3-3 verdict. In that case, Simpson’s decision would stand.

For me, however, it seems fairly clear that the costs of the Voter ID law far outweigh the benefits.



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.

The Trouble With Voter ID Laws

When it comes to civics, few things are more frightening than the idea that shadowy forces are subverting our elections. Americans, as citizens of a Democratic Republic, stake the legitimacy of their governments and representatives upon the will of the majority (or, in some cases, plurality). And while there may be political differences, most Americans would agree upon the sanctity of free and fair elections.

Therein lies the danger of voter identification legislation: these types of bills capitalize on fears of shadowy forces undermining the integrity of our democracy to then undermine the integrity of our democracy.

As I noted in a previous post, voter fraud is incredibly rare. The Bush Department of Justice made it a priority to vigorously prosecute voter fraud, and between 2002 and 2007 made only 86 convictions (many of which were residents who simply mistakenly believed they were eligible to vote). This, over a period of time in which 196,139,871 ballots were cast in federal elections.

As the Brennan Center notes, you are statistically more likely to be struck by lightening than you are to commit voter fraud.

Keep in mind the 86 convictions (which, as noted above, includes many cases that boil down to simple misunderstanding of eligibility rules) refer to the broader category of voter fraud. Voter ID bills, on the other hand, are aimed only at one, very specific form of voter fraud: voter impersonation. This latter form occurs only when a person tries to vote as someone that they are not.

So, the incredibly low number of 86 convictions nationwide is actually too high of a number when discussing the specific form of voter fraud that Voter ID bills would actually address.

But why is voter impersonation extremely rare? I handled this in an earlier blog post, but the short version is because the risks of committing voter impersonation fraud hugely outweigh the benefits. Voter fraud can carry penalties of up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for a benefit of a handful of extra votes in an election that will likely be decided by thousands.

The larger question is, why are legislatures pursuing costly new Voter ID laws (Pennsylvania’s is projected to cost between $4 million and $11 million)? The Economist explains this phenomenon fairly well:

[T]echnology and the presence of outside observers is complicating the election-rigging business, requiring dodgy politicians to work harder and more cleverly. Most manipulators make only sparing use of blatant election-day frauds, says Sarah Birch of the University of Essex. She compared observer reports of 136 elections held between 1995 and 2006 and found that a more frequent tactic is to alter election laws, often as a means of deterring opposition candidates or gerrymandering unlosable constituencies.

Or, in this case, as a means of deterring opposition voters.

Governor Corbett’s administration has contended that 99 percent of Pennsylvanians have the appropriate form of voter identification. But this statistic is fundamentally flawed. The 99 percent figure was arrived upon by the administration by taking the number of photo IDs the PA Department of Transportation has issued divided by the voting age population.

The obvious issue with this is that not everyone that has been issued an identification by PennDOT is eligible to vote. Among them are: people who are under 18, people who have since died, people who are not citizens, or people who have since moved. By artificially inflating the number of photo IDs that have been issued, this measure artificially inflates the number of people that are estimated to have the identification needed to vote.

While state figures are hard to come by, 11 percent of all Americans lack valid photo identification. And these Americans are not random — particular groups of voting age citizens would be disproportionately affected by Voter ID laws, including:

  • 25 percent of voting age African Americans
  • 15 percent of people making below $35,000/year
  • 18 percent of senior citizens
  • 20 percent of young voters (18-29 years old)

One would also imagine other groups that there are not yet photo ID statistics on (such as handicapped populations) might also not have the identification these Voter ID laws demand.

Of course, it is no coincidence that, in general, these groups of people tend to vote Democratic, and that Voter ID laws have been passed on in states controlled by Republicans.

That this is a targeted disenfranchisement is reinforced by state laws on acceptable forms of identification. For instance, Texas’ photo ID law appears to be designed to disenfranchise certain types of citizens (fortunately, it was blocked by the U.S. Department of Justice). Current Texan law allows various ways to prove your identity without needing a specific form of photo identification. The revised law, however, provides for only government-issued photo identification, which disproportionately affects the aforementioned groups of people. Licenses to carry concealed handguns are permissible, of course, while student IDs are not.

In Pennsylvania, the original version of the Voter ID law allowed only government-issued ID, though the definition of acceptable identification was loosened up slightly before final passage. The final bill claims valid student identification and IDs issued by care facilities (like assisted living communities, nursing homes, etc…) are acceptable. Yet caveats abound. Many elderly people who are likely without photo ID do not live in care facilities. And the law specifies that only student IDs from Pennsylvania universities are permissible. Furthermore, these forms of identification are only valid if they are not expired, but many student IDs, for example, have no listed expiration date.

The fact that these laws are not truly about safeguarding elections is further reinforced by Wisconsin’s experience. After passing a strict voter ID law, Governor Scott Walker moved to close down 10 DMV offices where photo identifications could be secured. This was done under the guise of economics — the money needed to implement this Voter ID law must come from somewhere, after all. Longer DMV office hours, increased demand for the necessary documentation (ex: birth certificates), the cost of providing these identifications, all have associated costs. But it certainly seems odd that the revenue for extending DMV office hours would come from closing other DMV offices, restricting the number of available locations for obtaining the identification needed to vote. Fortunately, the Wisconsin courts have recently struck down this Voter ID law as unconstitutional.

Likewise, in Pennsylvania, amendments that would have at least sought to blunt the impact of this bill were voted down by the majority Republicans. Such rejected amendments included:

  • Extended DMV hours
  • More locations at which to secure a Voter ID
  • Mobile units to help people register

It is similarly curious that Governor Corbett, who has followed a strict rule of cutting state spending at all costs, both endorsed and signed this Voter ID legislation. Despite drastic cuts in eduction investment, Governor Corbett nevertheless found it appropriate to spend between $4 million and $11 million to combat the non-existent threat of voter fraud, where simple enforcement of existing law would suffice.

The reason for this is that the bill was never about voter fraud to begin with — it was about rewriting the rules to favor the majority party. This is not an isolated incident. Other election law changes dominated Pennsylvania Republicans’ 2011 legislative agenda, from redistricting PA Senate and PA House districts into gerrymandered ‘safe seats’ to rewriting the way Pennsylvania would distribute its electoral votes for president.

The courts may yet strike this Voter ID law down — and they would be correct in doing so. The costs of obtaining a Voter ID are tantamount to a de facto poll tax (such fees were outlawed by the 24th Amendment). Advocates claim that the IDs are free, but that ignores the costs of obtaining the underlying documentation (such as the fee for replacing a lost birth certificate or the transportation costs), as well as the huge barriers of wading through the added bureaucracy (Pennsylvanians without photo ID must take additional steps to get another copy of their birth certificate). Securing the documentation needed to get a Voter ID will take time, especially now, as funding and personnel for government agencies handling such services are cut.

Furthermore, some voters may actually be eligible to vote, only to be disenfranchised in the days or weeks just before an election, if their license is suspended. Young people, especially, are at risk for this, as any instance of underage drinking (whether it involves a vehicle or not) results in a license suspension and now, disenfranchisement. Believing that underage drinking is unacceptable is one thing, stripping someone of the right to vote because of they consumed alcohol before turning 21 is another entirely.

Voting is a right, and playing politics with election law in order to gain an advantage at the ballot box has no place in a modern democracy. Democratically elected governments do not always make the right choices, but they can at least claim legitimacy of broad elections. Restricting that legitimacy would be an egregious error indeed.


Church, State, and Contraceptives

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput recently described the Obama Administration’s move to ensure access to birth control for women as both “dangerous” and “unprecedented.” Fortunately, neither of these charges is true.

The ruling in question requires employers to offer insurance plans that cover the cost of contraceptives. Such laws already exist in 28 states, and have been upheld by state courts. It would appear that there is a very clear precedent for the “unprecedented.” These states’ experiences also reveal that the fear of Catholic-affiliated universities and hospitals suddenly dropping employee health coverage in order to avoid providing contraceptives is unfounded.

Archbishop Chaput also argues that this decision undermines the Constitution by forcing Catholics to “violate our consciences.” But such action is not necessarily unconstitutional. After all, Catholic taxpayer dollars continue to fund the death penalty, an act that likewise violates the Catholic conscience, according to the Vatican. Yet the death penalty is undeniably constitutional.

Furthermore, the archdiocese does not object when the terms involve violating other people’s consciences. It has not come out against the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, despite the fact that many Americans feel it violates the Constitutional protections of the Establishment Clause. And just last fall, the Pittsburgh Archdiocese sought to use tuition assistance as leverage to convince parents to lobby the state legislature in favor of a school voucher bill. They eagerly supported this bill, ignoring that it explicitly violates Article 3, Section 15 of the Pennsylvania Constitution by providing funds for religious schools.

Also, one should keep in mind that the Obama Administration’s decision does not require any woman to violate her conscience. It does not force anyone to take contraceptives. Rather, it simply makes them more accessible by offering to cover the cost. Contraceptives, it should be noted, is one of the most effective ways to reduce the abortion rate because it addresses a key underlying cause of abortions: unintended pregnancies. It also has additional health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cancer, and is also widely accepted by Catholic Americans. Almost all sexually active Catholic American women use contraceptives, and a solid 58 percent of Catholics Americans believe health insurance should cover contraception.

Finally, it is important to remember that churches, with a specifically religious mission, are exempt from this mandate. The Catholic-affiliated institutions that are not exempt have secular aims, such as health care or education. That they employ and serve people of all different faiths underlines this fact.

With all this in mind, one can probably think of many ways to describe the Obama Administration’s recent ruling on contraceptive coverage – but “dangerous” and “unprecedented” are not two of them.