Karen Heller: Voter ID law taking away Pennsylvanians' rights

State Rep. Mike Turzai has said voter ID "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."
State Rep. Mike Turzai has said voter ID "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." (MARC LEVY / AP)
Posted: July 12, 2012

Here's the fairy tale House Majority Leader Mike Turzai told lawmakers in March before Pennsylvania's voter ID bill passed: "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."

And here's what he told the Republican State Committee last month to wild applause: "Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done."

Before passage, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele estimated that 99 percent of voters would have the necessary identification to vote.

Uh, no. Almost 10 percent of the commonwealth's 8.2 million voters lack proper ID for the November election, and 18 percent of voters in Philadelphia, the birthplace of democracy and, by far, the most affected county.

For this accomplishment, Pennsylvania earned its place on the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights' Map of Shame. In the immortal words of state Sen. Daylin Leach, "If you have to stop people from voting to win elections, your ideas suck."

Logic has almost nothing to do with the law. Enforcement and education are handled by one department (State), while registration is conducted by another (Transportation). You have to go to a PennDot office to get a non-driving ID, but may have trouble getting there if you don't drive.

People born in Pennsylvania will have an easier time securing ID than folks who were not. If you were born at home in another state, it gets worse. And you really don't want to know what happens to voters born in Puerto Rico.

Voter ID is not merely a horrendous law, built on a fallacy of pervasive voter fraud, that disproportionately affects the poor, old, disabled, and folks of color - though it most surely does hurt them - but it also disenfranchises the largest city in the state, actively trying to make Philadelphia a lesser player in the 2012 presidential election.

Four years ago, 83 percent of Philadelphians who went to the polls, almost 600,000 residents, voted for Barack Obama. So now, in addition to registering voters, and getting registered voters back to the polls, the Obama campaign must help voters get ID. It's like running an obstacle course wearing a 50-pound backpack.

"Eighteen percent is a whole lot of folks," Mayor Nutter says, and the impetus for the law "a solution looking for a problem." He notes of so many people affected, "This is the kind of information that is important to have before such game-changing legislation.

"I have yet to see any legitimate documented information or research that indicates some small, medium, or large issue about fraudulent voting in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania."

To cite an example, the Secretary of State's Office had to go back to the 1994 William Stinson state Senate race, where fraud involved absentee ballots cast in the names of dead people. Yet the current law doesn't concern absentee ballots.

A department spokesman says the problem may not be so great since around 50,000 of the city's registered voters are labeled "inactive." Those voters didn't participate in the last presidential election, suggesting they may have been students who have left the area.

This still would mean 13 percent of registered voters now lack proper ID. Philadelphians like Viviette Applewhite, 93, who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and voted in every presidential election since John F. Kennedy but may not now, since she has failed three times to obtain her birth certificate.

"I think it stinks," she says of the law. "I just think it's terrible. They're trying to take our rights away."

The law further disenfranchises the already disenfranchised, "folks whose voices need most to be lifted up, and the only opportunity they may have to be heard is when they get to go to the voting booth, people who worked so long and so hard for the right to vote," says Marcia Johnson-Blanco, codirector of the Voting Rights Project.

About 15 percent of all Americans earning less than $35,000 lack the proper state photo ID, according to one voting-rights group, almost a fifth of Americans 65 and older, and a quarter of all African Americans like Applewhite.

She is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the commonwealth filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and the Advancement Project. A hearing on the matter is set for July 25 in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, with the plaintiff attorneys seeking a temporary injunction until after the election. "The harm that will be created going forward with this law is so great, compared to the benefit," says the Law Center's Jennifer Clarke, "that you should stop it now until we can have a full-blown trial."

Of the law, Clarke says, "I think the bottom line is it's a big mess."

I think now might be the time to tell you that it's costing more of your money to educate voters about proper ID, and that the company that landed the $250,000 state contract to help do this is operated by a fund-raiser for Mitt Romney.

How's the process going? Just 2,477 voters have obtained identification since the law's March 15 passage. Only 753,462 voters to go!

And City Commissioner Stephanie Singer still hasn't received the list of voters who are now ineligible, information vital to getting them the necessary ID.

Folks, this is about civic pride and power, restoring our electoral might and letting our votes count. We need an army of volunteers to get disenfranchised voters to PennDot offices to acquire IDs, thwarting the cynicism of Harrisburg lawmakers who believe they can silence them. We can try to do this. After all, this is the city that mobilized to save a painting.

"In a backward kind of way, this kind of negative action could ultimately be turned around to a very positive action," the mayor says. "When you don't vote, when people have ideas very different than yours, they can make significant laws that negatively affect you, virtually taking away a sacred right."


Contact Karen Heller

at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586.

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