Absentee ballots may offer a way around Pennsylvania voter ID law

Posted: August 06, 2012

Thomas Cavanaugh, a longtime Democratic committeeman in Philadelphia's Tacony neighborhood, has two words of advice for senior citizens fretting about the state's new photo ID requirement: absentee ballot.

Though Pennsylvania's new voter ID law requires anyone showing up at the polls in November to produce an approved photo identification, voters may not need a photo ID if they vote by absentee ballot or by alternative ballot, the term used when the voter is 65 years old or handicapped and has an inaccessible polling place.

It's a simple solution to a complicated problem, but those ballots could make a close presidential election even more contentious if lawyers begin fighting over their legitimacy.

And the most notorious case of voter fraud since Democrats took over the city in the 1950s revolved around absentee ballots.

Either ballot can be applied for by mail, sent to the voter's registered address, filled out by the voter, and then sent back to election officials by mail well in advance of the Nov. 6 election.

"It's going to be a real brouhaha in November - a close presidential election, a big turnout," said Cavanaugh, 70, a committeeman for 25 of the last 30 years. "If they don't overturn [the voter ID law], this is going to be one of the biggest sideshows you're ever going to see in your life."

So he's encouraging his seniors to vote by absentee ballot.

Applications for absentee and alternative ballots, as well as detailed descriptions of the new voter ID law, are available on a state-administered website, www.votespa.com, under the heading "Resource Center."

The eligibility requirements are simple, at least on the surface.

Absentee ballots are available to people who can't get to their polling places on Election Day because of illness, physical disability, or religious reasons, and to people who expect to be absent because their "duties, occupation, or business require [them] to be elsewhere."

Alternative ballots are available to any voters who are at least 65 years old or disabled and who are assigned to inaccessible polling places.

Historically, in Philadelphia and throughout the state, county election officials have allowed voters to determine whether a disability is serious enough to keep them away from the polling place.

In Philadelphia, virtually all of the city's voting locations are considered inaccessible to the handicapped because of inadequate parking, according to City Commission chairwoman Stephanie Singer, who oversees the Board of Elections.

Though it does not require a photo ID for absentee ballots, the state's new voting law does include new security requirements.

Those applying for one must include a piece of identifying information: either the last four digits of their Social Security number, the full number on a Pennsylvania driver's license or PennDot nondriver ID, or a photocopy of any form of photo ID acceptable for voting purposes under the new state law.

People who intend to vote by alternative ballot will not be required to submit any identifying information beyond their names and addresses and a description of their disabilities, according to an application form available on the Department of State website.

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the Western Pennsylvania Republican who was the prime sponsor of the voter ID law, said the legislature did not change the circumstances under which voters can seek absentee ballots. "We just enhanced the security measures required, to make sure that when someone submits an application . . . it is the person registered to vote under that name."

If voters are genuinely bedridden, unable to leave their homes, Metcalfe said, he'd expect them to vote by absentee ballot. But he said it would be "a disservice" to advise elderly voters to go that route just to avoid the new photo ID requirement.

"If they want to vote on Election Day, they should be making sure they have their photo ID," Metcalfe said. "They don't have that [absentee ballot] option legally unless they meet those criteria."

When voters submit absentee-ballot applications, county election officials will be able to check their photo ID or compare applicants' ID numbers against comparable data that are supposed to be linked to the voters' registration in the state-administered system, according to Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.

If the numbers match, the city will mail the ballots to the voters' home addresses, to be filled out and returned by mail or dropped off in person.

But there is a risk, and if the state's presidential race is a cliff-hanger, it could be significant.

Each absentee or alternative ballot sent back to city or county election officials is kept in a separate, sealed envelope not to be opened until after the polls close.

If the absentee or alternative vote appears to have any importance in a close election, either statewide or in a district where the voter lives, his vote is subject to challenge by lawyers, who could try to have the vote thrown out if they can document any problems with the voter's right to cast a ballot without showing up at the polls.

The new law was promoted by Republicans as a way to combat vote fraud, but the biggest voting scandal in Philadelphia in the last 50 years was based on abuse of absentee ballots.

It was a special election in 1993 to fill a vacancy in the State Senate, a race with statewide significance because it would determine whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the chamber.

When the results from voting machines were initially tallied, the Republican candidate, Bruce Marks, had a 564-vote margin over Democrat William Stinson. But there were 1,767 absentee ballots cast in the race and Stinson claimed nearly 79 percent of them, enough to win the race.

After months of investigation, U.S. District Judge Clarence C. Newcomer threw out all the absentee ballots and voided Stinson's victory, ruling that city election officials had illegally provided absentee-ballot packages to campaign and party workers, creating an opportunity for campaign workers to help voters fill out ballot applications and even ballots.

"This practice was routinely conducted by Stinson campaign workers," Newcomer found.

Reporters from The Inquirer documented other apparent instances of vote fraud in the Marks-Stinson race.

Nora Brett, an 87-year-old woman who died at Frankford Hospital in February 1993, was reregistered in October that year as "Norm Brett" by persons unknown. An absentee ballot application was filed in Norm Brett's name, using Nora's old address, and the ballot was counted until Newcomer dismissed all of them.

Ballots in the name of Elpiniki Kousis, who left Philadelphia to live in Greece in 1991, were still cast - by someone - until 1993.

Robert J. Price registered to vote in Philadelphia's 42d Ward in 1988 but moved to Elkins Park shortly after. Votes were subsequently cast in his name five times, three on voting machines and twice on absentee ballots.

The Inquirer counted 44 cases where signatures appeared to be forged on envelopes containing absentee ballots and two dozen ballots cast in the names of people who did not live in Philadelphia.

Contacted last week, Marks said he supported the state's new voter ID law and thought the new requirements to obtain absentee ballots would deter fraud.

"Most fraudsters will not have access to the voter's PennDot ID number or last four digits of SSN, or be able to copy their photo voter ID," Marks said in an e-mail.

Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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