Photo ID Law Comes to Swing State of Pennsylvania

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Monday was the deadline to register to vote in the presidential primary in Pennsylvania on April 24. These primary voters will be greeted by a coming change in Pennsylvania election law. They’ll be asked to show photo ID before they cast their vote. 

It is part of what the state is calling “a soft rollout” of the photo ID law signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett earlier this month. Voters will still be able to cast their ballot without an ID, but they’ll be instructed how to get a free qualifying photo ID before the November election, when the new law will be in effect.

“It’s the perfect way to show them what’s going to happen in November,” said Matthew Keeler, deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Secretary of State.

The trouble is, voters who turn out for a primary — particularly one where there’s a contested race for the president on only the Republican side — are not the ones most likely to be impacted by the new photo ID requirement. Those tend to be low-income voters or African American voters. In other words, predominantly Democratic voters.

“Evidence tells us that these populations are more likely to vote Democratic, and if you’re relying on an election that is primarily going to turn out Republicans, it doesn’t seem logical that you can presume that you’re going to reach the voters that are likely to be the most impacted,” said Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, which has opposed stricter voting laws across the country.

After the April vote, Pennsylvania Secretary of State spokesman Keeler said there will be more outreach "as it gets closer to the election." Come November, Pennsylvania voters who cannot produce proper identification will have to cast provisional ballots and provide proof to county election officials within six days that they are eligible to vote. 

Neither the state nor the law’s critics have specific data on how many Pennsylvania voters could be affected by the new law.  

The Pennsylvania Secretary of State’s office says 99 percent of eligible voters already have the required photo identification. It based that analysis not on names on voter lists, but by comparing 2009 census estimates of eligible Pennsylvania voters to the number of unexpired state-issued identifications. 

The Brennan Center contends that this kind of number-crunching can be highly faulty, because the state DMV numbers often include residents who have moved out of state or who have died. A 2006 Brennan Center survey found 11 percent of eligible American citizens do not have government-issued photo ID. The rate ballooned to 25 percent for voting-age African Americans, while 18 percent of eligible voters older than 65 did not have current photo identification. 

Pennsylvania is just the latest state to create a new photo ID requirement to vote. Since the 2010 elections, the number has grown from two to nine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Supporters of photo ID laws describe them as commonsense measures to protect the integrity of elections. Critics contend they create an unnecessary hurdle without documented evidence of widespread voter fraud — particularly fraud by impersonating another voter at the polls, the kind of fraud photo ID laws prevent. 

Many of these new photo ID laws are now tangled up in legal challenges. Their path has differed because the Voting Rights Act reserves special scrutiny for states that have a history of voter intimidation.

In Texas and South Carolina, for example, implementation of new photo ID laws requires Justice Department approval. The Obama administration has blocked those laws, finding that the states failed to show that the new requirement wouldn’t discriminate against black voters.

South Carolina filed a lawsuit in February to challenge the Justice Department’s decision, and the standoff between the federal government and state law became a talking point on the presidential campaign trail during the South Carolina primary in January. The Brennan Center and the League of Women Voters filed a brief on Tuesday asking the federal court to throw out South Carolina’s law because of its effects on minority voters.  

Wisconsin, by comparison, did not need federal approval to enact its new photo ID requirement. It would have been in effect for the state's presidential primary on April 3, but earlier this month, a state judge ruled the law violated the state constitution.

“Without question, where it exists, voter fraud corrupts elections and undermines our form of government,” wrote Wisconsin Circuit Judge Richard Neiss. “But voter fraud is no more poisonous to our democracy than voter suppression. Indeed, they are two heads on the same monster.”