Photo ID for voting in Pa. may advance

Posted: March 06, 2012

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania is the latest battleground in a growing national fight over whether voters should be required to present photo identification at the polls.

The state Senate is poised to pass Wednesday a controversial bill, known as voter ID, that supporters say will ensure "integrity" at the voting booth and that critics contend will disenfranchise minorities, the elderly, the disabled, and the very poor.

The bill, which appears to be on a fast track to Gov. Corbett's desk, would require voters to show some form of photo identification upon arriving at the polls. Right now, residents need only present ID the first time they vote in a polling place.

Corbett has said he supports the proposal. Sponsors' intent is to have the bill signed in time for the November presidential election, and in time to give it a test run in the April 24 primary.

Opponents - including Democratic legislators, civil libertarians, the AARP, and the NAACP - contend that the measure, championed by Republicans in a GOP-dominated legislature, is a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the vote of traditionally Democratic constituencies.

They echo their counterparts on a national stage, who argue that a push for similar bills in legislatures across the country is aimed at skewing local, state, and presidential races in favor of Republicans.

"This is about nothing else than vote-rigging in Pennsylvania - trying to disenfranchise voters who vote the wrong way from the perspective of the people who support this bill," State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) said Tuesday. "This is about Republicans saying, 'We don't like to lose elections, so how can we stop that from happening?' "

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) countered that the legislation seeks to do one thing and one thing only: ensure that elections go off without a fraudulent hitch.

"It is not the end of Western civilization, as some people claim this to be, and it's not a vast right-wing conspiracy, as some people claim it to be," the top Republican argued this week during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the measure.

Pennsylvania is hardly alone in considering such a move. Voter ID bills have become such a high-profile issue in the last year that the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks bills, has called them "the hottest topic" in election-related legislation.

Like Pileggi, Republicans at the national level say the only goal is to prevent vote fraud - while the Democratic party's national chairwoman, Florida U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has called voter ID proposals "the modern-day equivalent of poll taxes and literacy tests."

In 2011 alone, 34 states introduced voter ID legislation, according to data gathered by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of the measures were championed by Republicans. This year, legislation is pending in 31 states.

In all, 15 states now require voters to present photo identification before voting - New Jersey is not one of them - though court challenges are pending in some states.

In Pennsylvania, the voter ID bill was passed by the House last summer but languished in the Senate, where two other elections-related measures took center stage. One, a controversial Republican proposal to change how the state's electoral votes are awarded to presidential candidates, has been abandoned. The other, the once-in-a-decade effort to redraw congressional and legislative maps, has been mired in court disputes.

With those other election-related efforts suffering setbacks, the voter ID bill made a sudden comeback this week. Its Republican supporters have not offered much in the way of specific examples of fraud at the polls, leading Democratic critics to say over and over again that the measure is a solution in search of a problem.

The Senate has made some changes to the bill - including expanding the list of acceptable photo identification cards, such as county and municipal or student cards, or those from personal-care homes. Those changes will have to be approved by the House, which could take up the issue as early as next week.

But the guts of the measure remain, with Republicans noting that no one will be turned away from a polling place: Under the bill, anyone who does not have the required ID could cast a provisional ballot, and then would have six days to present election officials with an acceptable ID.

The state Department of Transportation would also be required to issue an identification card at no cost to those who apply and swear they have no other proof of identification that can pass muster at the polls.

"No one will be turned away from the polls without voting," said Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre), "no one."

Democrats note that studies have shown voters less likely to have photo IDs, such as driver's licenses and passports, are typically the urban poor, the elderly, and the disabled.

For practice, election officials in the April 24 Pennsylvania primary would ask voters to produce a photo ID, but would not require them to provide it.

Republican senators estimate the legislation would cost about $4.8 million to implement, though a Harrisburg-based liberal think tank puts that number closer to $11 million, including the cost of educating voters and poll workers on the change.

Leach and other Democrats argue that even a lower cost is not justified to tackle a problem they believe does not exist in Pennsylvania. The only fraud that a photo ID could combat, Leach said, is voter impersonation.

He said Tuesday: "We are trying to stop a voter impersonation epidemic when there is no evidence that there is one."

Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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