Courts or polls may be next stop in Pa. voter ID law fight

Posted: March 14, 2012

HARRISBURG - The long debate in the legislature is over. The next battlegrounds for Pennsylvania's new law requiring voters to present photo identification may be the courts - or the polls.

Just hours after it passed the House of Representatives, Gov. Corbett signed the so-called voter-ID bill Wednesday evening, saying the law would bring greater integrity to the election process and would protect honest voters.

"This is a law of prevention," the Republican governor said before signing the bill. "It is to prevent voter fraud. And I believe it needs to be prevented."

By putting ink to paper, Corbett added Pennsylvania to the growing list of states that impose strict photo-identification requirements on voters before their vote can count - and added fresh fuel to what has become a bitter partisan fight in the state and across the nation. The law is to be in full force for the fall presidential election - a fact that Democrats said was no accident.

City and county officials warned of long lines at polling places and confusion for poll workers. Democrats and civil liberties groups promised to swiftly sue.

Those critics claim the measure will suppress the votes of the elderly, the disabled, minorities, and the poor, and violates the Pennsylvania constitution's mandate of "free and equal" elections.

"This is about suppressing the vote, and nothing else," said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D., Allegheny) minutes after the GOP-led House approved the bill, almost entirely on party lines.

Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Phila.) said: "This is a Jim Crow voter-suppression bill. . . . I know it, you know it, we all know it. I'm just not afraid to say it."

Republicans said the bill would ensure that the votes of those who cast ballots legally were not trumped by the votes of those who didn't.

"I certainly think and advocate that this is actually going to protect the enfranchisement of every single citizen's vote, no matter what your background, beliefs, religion, race, or ethnicity are," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). "Whenever you have fraud, you dilute the meaning of any single citizen's vote."

The House engaged in an unusually lengthy three-day debate before approving the bill Wednesday on a 104-88 vote. Every Democrat in the chamber voted no; all but three Republicans, aye.

During the debate, Democrats raised questions about the bill's necessity and its intent. Many argued that the measure was little more than a Trojan horse designed to tip election battles in Republicans' favor - starting with the presidential race.

Democrats also questioned whether there really was a vote-fraud problem that needed to be addressed and whether voters having to present a photo ID would actually solve it.

They contended the law would cause new problems at polls, both for the state's eight-million-plus registered voters and its tens of thousands of poll workers.

The bill mandates that voters show a photo ID such as a driver's license, passport, Pennsylvania college student ID card, or ID from a personal-care home.

But what would happen, Rep. Mike Sturla (D., Lancaster) wondered, if someone came in with a photo ID card from a cosmetology school? Could that person vote?

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), listed the acceptable identification cards but could not quite answer Sturla's question.

"If the maker of the bill can't answer the question, then how do we expect our poll workers to?" Sturla asked.

Secretary of State Carol Aichele, whose department oversees elections, said Wednesday that her staff typically rolled out a voter-education program in every presidential year. This year, that program will add information on the new law. There will also be radio and TV ads.

The department, Aichele said, will use funds from the federal Help America Vote act to pay for the publicity blitz.

Proponents estimate the state will spend almost $5 million to implement the law. A liberal think tank has put the number closer to $11 million. Whatever the price tag, implementing the law in such a short time will be a challenge, local officials say.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania warned legislators this week that the new ID requirements would result in longer lines at polls. The group also said commissioners had not heard allegations of voter impersonation from voters or workers.

Stephanie Singer, who as chairman of Philadelphia's city commissioners oversees the city's voting and has opposed the ID bill, said she was bracing for inevitable complications on Election Day.

The state is planning a "soft rollout" of the law for the April 24 primary, when voters will be asked for photo ID but not required to present one.

If voters Nov. 6 do not have photo IDs, they can cast provisional ballots and then have six days to present acceptable ID to officials.

But what happens, asked Singer, if a voter's photo ID displays a home address different from the one on poll workers' election rolls? What should a poll worker do if a student who lives in Philadelphia but attends Rutgers University in New Jersey shows up with a Rutgers student ID?

"As hard as we work to train people, there will be workers and poll watchers and voters who will be confused by this," said Singer. "And that will create tension in the polling place."

Republicans said the law was written to provide voters who need assistance in complying with the new requirements with the means to do so. The state Department of Transportation is to issue free ID cards to those who contend they have other acceptable proof of identity. Corbett said PennDot would also coordinate with other state agencies to offer special hours, as well as shuttles for seniors to get the proper identification.

Similar laws in other states have triggered a wave of recent court challenges. Corbett said the likelihood of suits did not deter him.

"If somebody challenges it," he said, "we will defend it."


Contact Angela Couloumbis

at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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