After roughly 19 months on the job, Commonwealth Secretary of State Carol Aichele has the unenviable task of convincing Pennsylvania voters that the Voter ID Law is designed to counter voter fraud, rather than a partisan move that could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.
Part of Aichele’s duty is to ensure that every eligible Pennsylvanian voter has the proper identification to vote, and to educate voters on the law – which, she stresses, will not allow any voter from being turned away at the polls without being afforded the opportunity to vote.
Aichele, along with Deputy Secretary Shannon E. Royer, met recently with the Tribune’s editorial board to reaffirm the nature of the law, and to get the word out that voters “may not be turned away from voting.”
“We have $5 million of ‘Help America Vote’ money for education for federal elections, and we would have spent money to educate voters about the election anyhow; we are also using the money to put forward the issue in respect to Voter ID,” Aichele said, listing the ways her office has mobilized for the coming elections. “And $250,000 is being used for non-media events, and the Bravo Group is averaging three events a day, seven days a week, going to community groups, church groups here in the city and across the state, chambers of commerce and rotary clubs.
“Anywhere [local organizations] ask us to go, we’ll send somebody out.”
As it stands, the State Department has worked in conjunction with PennDOT to create special voting purposes-only photo identification cards. To obtain one of these cards, a potential voter must present documentation verifying their name, social security number and any two sorts of utility bills or other such documents that will verify the voters’ address.
Aichele said the common misperception about the controversial Voter ID Law is that, without photo identification, there’s the potential that thousands of voters will not be able to vote. Aichele said no one will be turned away from the polls, as long as they can provide their first name, last name, social security number and produce two pieces of mail that verify their address; a voter will then receive a provisional ballot, which will allow them to cast their vote.
Both Aichele and Shannon seem acutely aware of the partisan overtones of the Voter ID Law, and agreed that recent comments attributed to Pennsylvania Republican Majority Leader Mike Turzai haven’t done much to quell that perception.
“Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it’s done. First pro-life legislation – abortion facility regulations – in 22 years, done,” Turzai said, according to PoliticsPA.com. “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”
Further damaging Aichele’s stance is the harshly worded response to the U.S. Department of Justice request for the documentation and other voter information that determined the Voter ID Law in the first place.
Although Aichele says she didn’t write the response, and only became aware of it a few days before the Voter ID Law trial, her name is on the letter and it does lends credence to the critics who believe this law is another way to slant the vote.
Aichele also stood by her claims that more than 99 percent of all eligible Pennsylvanians already have the required photo identification, and that she estimates roughly half a million voters may need to either obtain the voter ID card through PennDOT, or will fill out provisional ballots.
When pressed on the merits and timing of the vote, Royer defended the Voter ID Law, noting City Commissioner Al Schmidt’s recent report that there have been more than 700 instances of voter fraud and other irregularities at Philadelphia polling places.
“People voting twice in the same day under different names, non-citizens voting, theoretically, some of them cannot have the types of acceptable identification used to vote; it would stop that kind of fraud,” Royer said. “To suggest that activities don’t occur that voter ID can help prevent is just not true. You have it right here in Philadelphia.
“That is why people have lost confidence in the vote.”
Aichele also said that while there are strict voting policies in place, her office has no enforcement or investigative powers, meaning any suspect activity will have to be dealt with by local law enforcement, along with the District Attorney’s office.
“We are going to try very hard to build confidence, and not withstanding what Mr. Turzai said, it is our intent to make sure that every eligible voter has a photo ID and votes, and we will protect their rights,” Aichele said. “No poll worker can turn them away from a polling place. They cannot be denied the right to vote. It’s their right.
“I’m absolutely certain that if this election is close and there are provisional ballots, that there will be lawyers looking into this very carefully, and I would welcome that.”
Hours at five local PennDOT licensing centers have been extended to give Philadelphia voters greater opportunity to get a photo ID for voting.
“Extending our hours in the state’s largest county demonstrates PennDOT’s continuing willingness to help customers comply with the Voter ID law,” said Transportation Secretary Barry Schoch, a statement released late Monday.
New hours — on Thursdays only — start Sept. 27 and run through Nov. 8.
Licensing centers at 801 Arch St., 1530 South Columbus Blvd., 2320 Island Ave., 919-B Levick St., 7121 Ogontz Ave. will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Though Schoch gave no reason for the decision, Mayor Michael Nutter recently made a personal appeal to Gov. Tom Corbett, asking him to extend hours for licensing centers in the city.
Nutter asked that hours be set from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“The citizens most in need of new identification are very likely those who have the least amount of daytime availability and physical mobility, namely workers who do not have flexibility to take time off during the middle of the work day or seniors who are unable to travel far distances or who rely on public transportation,” the mayor wrote in the letter dated Aug. 28.
He also asked Corbett to consider a list of other items, including providing a dedicated counter devoted exclusively to handling voter ID applications.
Since March, when Corbett signed the voter ID law, PennDOT has issued about 7,000 voter IDs at licensing centers across the state. About 2,600 have been issued in Philadelphia.
On Thursday, the state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a suit seeking to overturn the law, but voter advocates continue to urge voters to prepare for the worst and get the state required ID.
“We’re urging people, no matter what the court decides, to continue to get ID,” said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the state and local chapters of the NAACP, one of the parties seeking to overturn the law.
Critics of the law argue that it will disenfranchise voters – many of them Black.
Estimates vary widely but some suggest as many as 280,000 voters in Philadelphia alone lack proper ID. That number was compiled by a local voter advocacy group. The state’s official estimates suggested that about 187,000 voters lack ID.
The Tribune, in culling through voter data, has estimated that 39 percent of active African-American voters in Philadelphia — more than 152,000 people — lack state-required photo identification needed to cast their ballot on Nov. 6.
The city of Philadelphia, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and an anxious nation await a ruling from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which on Thursday heard impassioned arguments for and against the voter ID law.
Similar laws have been struck down in some states, like Texas, and upheld in others, like Indiana, so there’s no clear indication of which way the state’s highest court will rule.
Either way it goes, advocacy groups are gearing up for a hectic election season, and a chaotic Election Day. Community organizers are knocking on doors, helping folks fill out the required paperwork, and using rental vans and private vehicles to transport people to local PennDOT centers to obtain the necessary ID.
Other groups, like the tea party-led True the Vote, are gearing up to challenge voters in certain communities, training “poll watchers” whose duty is to make sure anyone who looks suspicious to them has the proper identification. True the Vote hopes to train and dispatch one million volunteers to polling places around the nation to make sure the election isn’t somehow stolen by what they call “the food stamp army.”
At first I was horrified, thinking the massive voter intimidation effort by True the Vote and others on Election Day would surely result in further disenfranchisement, anger, lawsuits, bullying and probably violence.
On the other hand, maybe not.
Think about it: Can you really see vanloads of young, freshly-scrubbed GOP poll watchers with clipboards and cell phones descending on neighborhoods they’ve only seen from the window of the R5 train from Doylestown? Can you see them getting in voters’ faces in those neighborhoods, challenging them to show identification or otherwise explain themselves?
Here’s what actually happens: the van full of eager volunteers pulls up to a polling place in a crumbling school building in a hardscrabble neighborhood. Milling about outside the polling place are several dozen dark-skinned people those volunteers wouldn’t even sit next to on the subway. Then the volunteer coordinator points to the naïve zealots in the back seat and says, “OK, you, you and you – get out and make sure those people have ID. Tell them you’ll call the authorities if they won’t show it to you, and don’t take no for an answer. Let them know who’s boss. We’ll be back to pick you up around lunchtime.”
Think anyone is getting out of that van? Nope. Me either. And if they do, I doubt they’d still be standing there at lunchtime.
And I think the same thing holds true whether that van pulls up in North Philly, South Chicago, the Bronx or South Central Los Angeles.
No, I think the “certain neighborhoods” targeted, and the only neighborhoods True the Vote would dare try it, are those communities populated by undocumented aliens. The assumption would be that “those people” are less likely to aggressively assert their constitutional rights, and are more likely to be intimidated by an official-looking white person with a clipboard.
But that logic too falls flat. Even in those neighborhoods, the people who know they’re in the country illegally won’t go anywhere near a voting booth. Years of living under the radar has taught them to steer clear of any situation where they’re liable to be stopped and questioned, and aren’t likely to voluntarily walk into a room packed with election judges, poll watchers and political activists.
So most likely True the Vote and the other Election Day bullies will end up harassing legal voters who happen to have brown skin. They’ll be videotaped trying to intimidate Americans who speak English with an accent, and that video will make the evening news.
Comparisons will be made to the Jim Crow voter intimidation tactics of the 1960s, and mainstream Republicans will be shamed into distancing themselves from these idiots, swearing on a stack of Bibles that they acted alone and without official party approval.
Two years ago in Harris County, Texas, members of True the Vote reportedly used a number of tactics to interfere with voters – allegedly watching them vote, hovering over voters as they signed their names, blocking the lines and confronting both voters and election workers like schoolyard bullies.
Apparently, it worked well enough to encourage the bullies, who now believe they can take the same show on the road, spreading the hate nationwide.
They’re serious about this, and there’s every indication they’ll probably try it again – although I think they’ll be very, very judicious about which neighborhoods they go into. North Philly is not Harris County, Texas.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
Lawrence Austin is now a proudly registered Democrat, with a new state identification card, intent on casting his first ballot on Nov. 6 – but his road to the ballot box has been a long and rocky one.
“I never voted before,” he said. “But this is affecting a lot of people, as far as living, school, medical. I’m looking at a lot of things where if you don’t vote, man, and we get a Republican president in there — things are going to be very serious.”
Austin, 58, lives in West Philadelphia, but he was born in New York City in 1954. His parents — Emma Rosario and Nathan Austin — were not married when Austin was born, and his name was recorded incorrectly on his birth certificate as Lawrence James Rosario.
That was an inconsequential fact for most of Austin’s life, the majority of which has been spent in Philadelphia.
“I moved here when I was nine years old,” he said.
He attended school here. He worked here, most recently as a cook for 15 years at the now defunct Bookbinder’s, the famed Society Hill restaurant. He has never needed identification. He now collects disability and the Social Security Administration sends him his monthly checks.
But, this year, fed up with the Republicans in Congress and in Harrisburg, he decided to vote — for the first time in his life.
“I never thought it mattered,” he said. “But I see how things are going on in life. If you don’t vote, you don’t have no rights at all, you know what I mean?”
Like many of his fellow citizens this election season, Austin now needed identification.
So in June he revived efforts to get his birth certificate.
Officials in New York State told him he should obtain a copy of his birth certificate with the incorrect name, and then petition to have it changed. But since both of his parents are dead, he lacked the documents — like his parents’ marriage certificate — needed to prove that his last name was Austin. As a last resort, he applied to the school district for his transcripts, which he hoped would include the last name Austin.
They told him transcripts would cost $13, but no one could tell him how long they would take to process, or even if they carried the last name Austin.
In the meantime, he registered to vote at the city’s elections office. That process was relatively easy. Austin estimated that it took about 30 minutes.
Then, exasperated, Austin went to the PennDOT licensing center without any documents. He had his Social Security number — not his card — and a Social Security award letter with his address on it.
He waited for several hours — his estimated wait time was between three and four hours — as the clerk there struggled to help him get a voter ID.
“The man did me a favor,” Austin said.
After more than five hours, Austin emerged from the licensing center with a state Department of State identification card.
“Someone who worked couldn’t do that,” he said. “There were so many complications.”
He estimated there were 200 people in line the day he was there. On the day of his interview, the line at the PennDOT licensing center at 801 Arch St. extended out the door of the center, which is about mid-block, almost to the corner.
It is one of five centers in the city where PennDOT officials recently extended the hours in an effort to provide greater access for residents who would need identification to vote.
State estimates suggest that 18 percent of Philadelphians — or 186,830 of the city’s registered voters — do not have a photo ID that meets the state’s requirement to cast a ballot in November. Across the state, an estimated 758,000 registered voters or 9.2 percent of all registered voters.
Since March, PennDOT had issued 7,548 identification card for voting purposes, the majority — about 3,217 of them have been issued in Philadelphia. The state Department of State has issued 579, of that total 343 have been issued in Philadelphia.
A number of analyses have suggested that the law could have a disproportionate impact on Black and Latino voters. Numbers compiled by the Tribune suggested that 39 percent of Black and Latino active voters — as many as 152,000 and 37,000 people respectively — in Philadelphia could be disenfranchised by the law. That compared to 20 percent of white voters.
Though Austin can proudly brandish his new state ID, he was critical of the new law — and the process he had to endure.
“There is a lot of people today who probably want to vote, but don’t have no ID and don’t know how to get one,” he said.
Voting rights advocates are hailing this week’s decision by the state Supreme Court, which threw a suit challenging the new voter ID law back to a lower court for further review, as a positive development in their effort to delay the law’s implementation.
“It’s a positive step toward ensuring access to the ballot box for the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians still faced with the prospect of potential disenfranchisement,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “With limited time left until Election Day, a limited number of PennDOT locations and hours, and approximately 800,000 qualified and registered voters without approved ID, this law cannot stand.”
The NAACP was one of several advocacy groups, which also included the ACLU and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, that challenged the law in court.
In August they asked the Commonwealth Court to issue an injunction delaying implementation of the law until after the Nov. 6 presidential election. On Aug. 15, Judge Robert Simpson rejected their request. They appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments last week.
On Tuesday, the court’s six sitting justices, in a 4-2 decision, remanded the case back to Commonwealth Court, ordering it to issue an injunction if it finds that the new law will prevent voters from voting on Nov. 6. If the lower court finds that there is no voter disenfranchisement, then the law will stand.
Judge Simpson has until Oct. 2 to issue a ruling.
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, Justice J. Michael Eakin and Justice Thomas G. Saylor, the court’s three Republicans, were joined by Democrat Max Baer in the majority opinion.
“We … return the matter to the Commonwealth Court to make a present assessment of the actual availability of the alternate identification cards on a developed record in light of the experience since the time the cards became available,” the majority justices wrote.
Two Democrats, Debra McCloskey Todd and Seamus McCaffery, issued dissenting opinions, blasting their colleagues for the decision.
“In my view, the time for prediction is over. Forty-nine days before a Presidential Election, the question no longer is whether the Commonwealth can constitutionally implement this law but whether it has,” Todd wrote in her dissent. “The majority … allows the Commonwealth to virtually ignore the election clock and once again try to defend its inexplicable need to rush this law into application. Seven weeks before the election voters deserve to know the rules.”
The key words in the majority opinion were “no voter disenfranchisement,” said David Gersch, the attorney who argued for voting rights advocates last week before the court, adding that he was pleased the justice set a high standard for the review by Commonwealth Court. “That is a very tough standard to meet. The Commonwealth is going to have a lot to show.”
Overall, Gersch was pleased, he said.
“It’s certainly a very positive step in the right direction, in that the court recognizes that the state does not make adequate provision for people to get the ID that they would need to vote,” he said.
Estimates of how many voters might be disenfranchised vary widely, but earlier this year state officials estimated that 186,830 Philadelphians lacked the identification need to cast a ballot. Across the state that number ballooned to 758,000 registered voters.
In rejecting the application for an injunction, Simpson acknowledged that about 1 percent of voters, or about 89,000 people, could be disenfranchised by the law.
Criticism of the law often breaks down according to party affiliation. Democrats argue it is intended to disenfranchise young, old, poor and minority voters. Republicans contend that is needed to prevent voter fraud.
The law was passed by a Republican-dominated legislature and quickly signed in March by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Focusing on the fact that in the majority opinion, the justices said they believed the administration was working in “good faith” to make sure as many voters as possible had the necessary identification, Corbett said he too was pleased with the decision.
“I am pleased that the state Supreme Court recognized that we have been working hard, and in good faith, to implement the voter ID law,” he said in a statement to reporters. “My administration will continue to work hard to ensure that Pennsylvania voters know about this new law, and help them obtain the proper identification to vote on Election Day.”
While saying he too was pleased with the ruling, which he hailed as “tentative victory,” the head of the state chapter of the NAACP, J. Whyatt Mondesire, urged voters to continue their efforts to get the state-required identity card.
“The NAACP and other leading organizations will continue to provide resources to those in need of the potential voter photo ID ahead of Election Day,” he said.
Department of State institutes electronic confirmation system
In a move praised by critics, the Pennsylvania Department of State has streamlined the voter ID application process for voters born in Pennsylvania, but lacking an official copy of their birth certificate.
“With less than eight weeks to go before Nov. 6, there is a shrinking window of opportunity to get a photo ID,” said Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the non-partisan political watchdog group Committee of Seventy, a member of a coalition of voter advocates that has opposed the state’s new voter ID law. “The Department of State deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a quicker and easier way to get a photo ID.”
Under new rules, PennDOT officials will now verify the existence of a Pennsylvania birth certificate electronically — while the applicant waits, trimming days or weeks off the application process. Until the change, transportation officials required a certification letter from the state Department of Health, a process that could take as long as 10 days — and meant two trips to a PennDOT licensing center.
Voters could now, in theory, apply for voter ID on Election Day, said Stalberg, though it was not an option he endorsed.
Voter advocates across the state were reporting that the need to make multiple trips to a PennDOT licensing center was deterring voters from getting the new state-required identity card, reported Stalberg.
Even fierce critics of the law — while remaining critical — have praised the state Department of State’s flexibility in implementing it — and in educating the public.
“I don’t like it,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College of the law. “But, I will give the Commonwealth credit. They have not done what some other states have. They have worked to help people register. You just can’t say they’re doing nothing. That’s just not fair.”
“This is a win for voters and a win for everyone, including the Department of State, working very hard to make sure that every voter is prepared to vote on Nov. 6,” he said.
Last week, PennDOT expanded hours at five Philadelphia licensing centers, which will now remain open until 7 p.m. That eased the situation for Philadelphia voters, though anecdotal accounts report that applicants are waiting as long as five or six hours for their IDs.
Earlier last month, the department introduced a special voter ID for people who had difficulty obtaining the documents required to get the identity card.
The law is under review by the state Supreme Court — with the possibility of a ruling this week.
During testimony at a hearing on the matter, an attorney representing a group of people who sued arguing that the law would disenfranchise them, David P. Gersch, pointed out that nine counties across the state don’t even have a PennDOT licensing center, and that in 10 counties those centers are open only one day a week.
Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Tribune is examining the impact of the state’s new voter identification law, how it will affect different segments of Philadelphia’s population and what's needed to obtain the required identification. This article examines how it might impact people who aren’t eligible for a PennDOT ID.
State estimates suggest that about 85,000 people across Pennsylvania will be unable to provide the documentation needed to get a state ID through PennDOT — leaving them with only one other option, an ID dispensed by the state Department of State.
“It is a card that will be given for voting purposes only,” said Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Department of State at a recent voter ID informational meeting.
At the moment, all voters are required to show valid photo identification before they will be allowed to cast their ballot on Nov. 6. The law has been challenged in state court, but this week a judge refused to delay implementation of the law until after the election.
Activists are urging residents to get an ID so they are prepared — whatever happens.
The entire process starts with PennDOT, though in this case the Department of State issues the identification card. Applicants must go to a local PennDOT licensing center and tell officials there that they lack the documents needed for a state voting ID.
“Tell them you would like the Department of State ID for voting,” Ruman said. “They will give you a piece of paper to sign that says ‘I cannot obtain the documents I need to get a PennDOT ID.’”
State officials have broken down the problems most residents will face trying to obtain an ID into three broad categories: people who once had a valid driver’s license but it has expired, Pennsylvania natives who have never had a state identification card and registered voters, typically not born in Pennsylvania, who are unable to get a copy of their birth certificate.
Every Pennsylvanian is eligible for a free, state identification card to vote. But, many lack the documents required by the state to get that identification — unable to get copies of birth certificates or documents that verify a name change — particularly important for married women — or a Social Security card.
Residents in the final category will be issued the state department identification card. They will be issued the card only if they are already a registered voter.
“Make sure you’re registered,” Ruman said. “PennDOT is going to verify that you’re a registered voter.”
Ruman said state officials designed the state department ID after discovering that many Pennsylvanians lacked birth certificates and other crucial documents.
“As we implemented this, we discovered there were folks who are really having trouble getting documents,” he said.
PennDOT requires a Social Security card, or a valid passport, birth certificate with raised seal, certificate of citizenship or naturalization and two items with the person’s address on it, like a utility bill.
So, individuals who lack those documents must turn to the state Department of State for a photo ID as the provider of last resort. Applicants there are required only to have a Social Security number — not a copy of their Social Security card — and two proofs of residence — like a utility bill. If the applicant lacks a proof of residence on paper, someone else can verify their address, like a family member or landlord, but only if they appear in person at PennDOT.
In addition to making sure they have valid identification, all potential voters need to be registered to vote. Anyone wanting to vote in the upcoming election must be registered before they apply for an ID.
The last day Pennsylvanians can register to vote in the Nov. 6 election is Oct. 9.
A recent Tribune analysis of voting records showed that approximately 39 percent of active African-American voters in Philadelphia — more than 152,000 people — lack the state-required photo identification needed to cast their ballot in November. That figure compares to about 82,000 — or about 20 percent — of active, white Philadelphia voters who lack proper identification.
Commonwealth Court to rule on disenfranchisement issue
The legal challenge to the state’s voter ID law heads back to Commonwealth Court today where Judge Robert Simpson will again consider a request by voter advocates to delay implementation of the law.
“He’s going to be hearing testimony about whether the new Department of State ID, which became available on August 27 and has looser requirements than the PennDOT ID, is available to all voters, so in other words, that no voter will be disenfranchised,” said attorney Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director of the Committee of Seventy.
Two days — Tuesday and Thursday — have been set aside for testimony.
The Supreme Court ordered Simpson to render a decision by Oct. 2, just 35 days before the election. However, a decision by Simpson may not end the case. Either side can appeal.
If that happens, the case would bounce back up the legal ladder to the state Supreme Court.
Last week, the state Supreme Court threw the case back to Commonwealth Court, telling Simpson he must review the state law and determine whether it disenfranchises voters. If he finds that voters lack easy access to the ID, or any voters are disenfranchised, he must issue an injunction, delaying the law until after the Nov. 6 election.
It is the second time Simpson has considered the law. On Aug. 15, he rejected a plea for an injunction, triggering the Supreme Court case.
Kaplan noted that there have been some changes since then.
Perhaps the most significant is the creation of a state Department of State ID.
“He didn’t have any chance to evaluate the Department of State ID,” she said. “It didn’t go into effect until August 27, which was after the hearing. So, he didn’t take any testimony on the impact of the DOS ID in making it easier for voters.”
An attorney representing the voter advocates who filed the suit said the new hearing takes place with Simpson facing a much higher legal standard than he did the first time around.
The key words in the majority opinion were “no voter disenfranchisement,” said David Gersch, in a previous Tribune interview. “That is a very tough standard to meet. The Commonwealth is going to have a lot to show.”
Estimates of how many voters might be disenfranchised vary widely but earlier this year state officials estimated that 186,830 Philadelphians lacked the identification need to cast a ballot. Across the state that number ballooned to 758,000 registered voters.
In rejecting the application for an injunction, in August, Simpson acknowledged that about 1 percent of voters or about 89,000 people could be disenfranchised by the law.
Even by the lower standard, the number of state IDs lags behind estimates.
As of September 20, the state had issued 9,053 PennDOT IDs and 1,097 Department of State IDs. Of that total, 3,878 PennDOT and 642 DOS IDs had been issued in Philadelphia.
The moral outrage and national embarrassment over Pennsylvania’s strictest-in-the-nation voter identification law are well-deserved.
But what’s most disturbing about this law is the fact that it’s a blatant abuse of power by the controlling party in Harrisburg – the Republicans – for purely partisan political gain.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday (Sept. 13) on whether to stop the voter ID law from taking effect this fall. While the justices should certainly keep in mind the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians likely to be disenfranchised by this law, they should also be mindful of their role as a constitutional check against abuses of power by the legislature and the governor.
These six Supreme Court justices (the seventh has been suspended while she faces criminal charges) may be the only people who can stop this unconstitutional Republican power grab. The Supreme Court is evenly split politically – three Democrats and three Republicans. If the court’s voter ID decision ends in a 3-3 tie, the Commonwealth Court’s ruling would be upheld and voter ID would remain in effect for this November’s elections.
That’s why all eyes will be on Philadelphia’s own Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille. A Republican and former Philadelphia District Attorney, Castille has been known to set party allegiances aside in his rulings. Most recently, he stunned political observers by throwing out the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s redrawn state House and Senate district maps.
In his written opinion on that case, Castille wrote: “It is true, of course, that redistricting has an inevitably legislative, and therefore an inevitably political, element; but, the constitutional commands and restrictions on the process exist precisely as a brake on the most overt of potential excesses and abuse.”
Those words – “a brake on the most overt of potential excesses and abuse” – are surprisingly relevant in the voter ID case.
Let’s remember that state House Republican Majority Leader Mike Turzai made this now-infamous remark: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”
It doesn’t get more overt than that. Turzai’s comments were a rare moment of political honesty about what the voter ID law truly is – a partisan scam intended to rig a presidential election for the Republican candidate. If that’s not partisan excess and an abuse of power, I don’t know what is.
Even the Commonwealth Court judge called Turzai’s statements “disturbing” and “tendentious.” Unfortunately, the judge glossed over Turzai comments. The Supreme Court should not make the same mistake.
This law clearly was never about preventing voter fraud, as there have been zero instances of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania – the only type of fraud this law would prevent.
No, the majority leader of the state House didn’t misspeak, and he wasn’t speaking as just one lone powerless member of the House. He spoke from a position of authority – as the person in charge of legislation in the state House. He just happened to accidentally speak the truth, admitting that the voter ID law has always been about voter suppression, not voter protection.
This law is intended to suppress the vote of traditionally Democratic-leaning populations – minorities, women, seniors, individuals with disabilities and young adults. It just so happens that most of those groups live right here in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties – Chief Justice Castille’s hometown. This law disenfranchises his neighbors.
These are people who are most likely not to have a U.S. Passport or a Pennsylvania Driver’s license and do not have adequate resources to obtain an acceptable alternative form of identification. This strategic ploy was meant to impact voters within months of its passage, leaving many bewildered, overwhelmed and angry.
Citizens must quickly learn the law’s requirements and their responsibilities in ensuring they have an acceptable proof of identification to cast their ballots on Nov. 6. Some citizens are forced to determine if their current identification will be accepted, while others who do not have identification must compile and submit the required paperwork quickly to be able to vote.
To make matters worse, only PennDOT licensing centers can issue the alternative acceptable form of identification, and those centers often are not conveniently located and are open during limited hours. Lack of transportation to the PennDOT centers is a serious hurdle for many voters.
It is my hope that the Supreme Court – led by Philadelphia’s own Chief Justice Castille – will do the right thing by all Pennsylvanians and stop this undemocratic law – a transparent abuse of power – from being implemented this November.
If those six justices fail to stop this sham of a voter ID law, they will share in the stained legacy this law will leave for future generations.
Ronald G. Waters represents the 191st Legislative District in portions of Philadelphia and Delaware counties and serves as chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.
Technicality lets colleges, nursing homes issue voter ID to any county resident
State officials acknowledge that a loophole in the state’s voter ID law allows county-operated facilities like nursing homes and community colleges to issue voter IDs to all county residents, but is discouraging municipalities from exercising that option — and voters from applying for them.
“We do not sanction that,” said Ronald Ruman, a spokesman for the Department of State. “The clear intent of the law was to allow care facilities, including nursing homes, to issue IDs for their residents, and colleges to issue IDs to their students.”
County commissioners in Montgomery and Allegheny counties recently authorized county-owned nursing homes to provide ID for all county residents. Allegheny County commissioners also approved a similar measure for the Community College of Allegheny County.
Montgomery and Allegheny counties approved similar rules on Sept. 20.
Montgomery County commissioners unanimously approved a measure authorizing the county operated nursing home to issue identity cards for voting purposes.
An attorney for the county said that after studying the law, county officials determined that the commissioners had the authority to make the decision.
“A strict reading of the law clearly authorizes a Pennsylvania care facility, such as Parkhouse (the county-owned nursing home), to issue voter ID cards to any registered voter,” said assistant solicitor David Robinson, in a statement.
He said the law designates five authorized issuers of ID cards — including Pennsylvania care facilities. Robinson said the statute specifically limits municipalities to only issuing cards to its employees, but imposed no limitations on the remaining four state authorized issuers.
The “decision by our board, simply ensures the rights of eligible Montgomery County voters. I realize that this does not solve the problem across the Commonwealth, but it is an important step in the right direction for our constituents in Montgomery County,” said Josh Shapiro, chair of the county board.
In Philadelphia, administration officials said they are not considering a similar move.
The city’s elections are overseen by city commissioners. But, Commissioner Stephanie Singer said that applies only to administrative decisions.
“We don’t interpret state law,” she said, referring calls to the mayor’s office.
The mayor’s office is responsible for the operation of the county nursing home, and appoints the board of trustees to the Community College of Philadelphia. An administration spokesman said city officials had discussed similar options, but discounted the idea.
“We’ve made a decision not to pursue this type of ID,” said Brian Abernathy, chief of staff for Managing Director Richard Negrin. “At this point we think it’s unclear whether these types of ID will be acceptable forms of identification for voting. Without more clarity around this issue, we don’t want to do more harm than good.”
City Council President Darrell Clarke said through his spokesperson, Jane Roh, that Council was aware of Montgomery County’s actions, but was unsure whether similar action could be taken in Philadelphia, even if council has the authority to undertake such a plan, which remains unclear.
“It’s less of an opportunity for Philly as opposed to counties like Montgomery County or Allegheny,” she said.
Ruman said state officials worried that the IDs would “create serious safety and liability issues” for the entities that issued them.
“We think that people could use them to gain access to places that they shouldn’t be, and thus open the institution to tremendous liability concerns,” he said.
The department appears to have little latitude, aside from expressing official displeasure. Ruman said it will be up to poll workers to accept or deny any form of ID.
“We would think these IDs are acceptable IDs, but we don’t think it’s wise to issue them to the public at large,” he said.
Robinson said the county’s actions were in accord with statements made recently by two Supreme Court justices.
“Parkhouse’s issuance of voter ID cards helps achieve both of the court’s goals.” Robinson said. “First, it helps to assure that Montgomery County voters have liberal access to voter ID cards. Second, a Commonwealth challenge to Parkhouse’s right to issue voter ID cards would arguably be an attempt to impose stricter rules than are contemplated by the statute, a direct violation of the express mandate of the Supreme Court.”
While lauding the principle of easier access to IDs, one voter advocate said that he recommended that voters get an identity card that has formal state approval.
“Our concern is that it may further confuse an already confused situation,” said Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy. “People who need ID are confused enough.”
He also worried that on Election Day voters could be turned away.
“We tell anyone who calls to get a form of voter ID that is completely trustworthy,” he said. “At this point in the game, that is one issued by PennDOT, or the Department of State ID.”