Pennsylvania's readiness to implement voter ID law questioned

Posted: July 29, 2012

Concerns were raised Friday in Commonwealth Court that voters, poll workers, and state Department of Transportation employees remain in the dark about Pennsylvania's new voter ID law.

During the third day of hearings in a court challenge to the law, a Department of State official said letters sent in the last few weeks to the 758,000 registered voters who are believed to not have the correct PennDot ID did not contain details about the department's new voting-only ID card.

"It wasn't finalized at the time the letters were sent," said Shannon Royer, deputy secretary for external affairs and elections. The letters also do not tell voters where to go to obtain ID, but direct them to a website and phone number they can use to obtain more information.

The four-month-old law, championed by Republicans, requires every voter to show a valid photo ID. Its backers argue the law will prevent fraud.

Democrats contend it is a thinly disguised barrier to voting aimed at poor and minority groups. It is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups.

Witnesses at the hearing Friday said they had issues with the accessibility of PennDot centers. Approximately half of the counties in Pennsylvania either do not have PennDot photo and licensing centers or such centers are open only one or two days each week, according to evidence provided by the plaintiffs.

Concern over whether PennDot employees are adequately prepared to help voters obtain the new ID has been expressed by Secretary of State Carol Aichele, who is responsible for running elections.

Witnesses on the plaintiffs' list have stated in depositions that PennDot charged them for the cost of the new ID, though the IDs are supposed to be free.

A Department of Transportation official addressed the concerns over PennDot's preparedness at Friday's hearing.

"I had made the argument to the legislature that our locations are already taxed," said Kurt Myers, deputy secretary for safety administration. "The size and the cost of the program were among concerns, as well as the increased customer flow to the drivers' licensing centers."

Myers said he now believes the PennDot centers can handle the flow of voters in need of ID. He said he anticipates the number in need of the voting-only ID will be small, regardless of the high number of voters who currently do not have the proper ID.

"I would suspect that we would not be anywhere close to issuing 10,000 of those cards," Myers said.

This may be because voters are unaware of the new law.

University of Washington political scientist Matt A. Barreto testified for the plaintiffs Thursday that his polling showed that 34 percent of Pennsylvania's registered voters did not know about the voter ID requirement.

Royer testified Friday that it was his understanding that in May or June the number was a much lower 18 percent.

Mark Wolosik, division manager of the Allegheny County Division of Elections, said he anticipated there would be voters who were unaware of the law and would show up at the polls without identification, even if they had it. This would create slowdowns as people argued or complained to poll workers, he said.

Wolosik also testified that this could be exacerbated by poll workers' lack of training and knowledge about the new law.

"It has happened where an entire polling team at any one location has no single trained poll worker," Wolosik said. "It's not common, but it happens."

Royer said the Department of State was engaging in a massive campaign to inform voters of the new law. In this process, Royer said, the department had checked with other states with photo ID laws to seek recommendations for Pennsylvania.

"Other states stressed the importance of making sure the poll workers are prepared to implement and enforce this law on Election Day," Royer said. "Poll workers are not required to attend training, though."

Hearings will continue Monday at 10 a.m.

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