Other counties may join in using Pennsylvania voter-ID law loophole

Posted: September 23, 2012

A voter-ID mutiny launched by Democratic-controlled Montgomery and Allegheny Counties showed signs of spreading across the state Friday, as Philadelphia and a handful of other local governments said they, too, would consider issuing poll-ready identification cards through county-run nursing homes and colleges.

Despite the bitter partisan debate surrounding the controversial Pennsylvania law, state Republicans voiced little opposition Friday to the counties' new plans.

"I don't think anyone contemplated the possibility of a county nursing home becoming an issuer of an identification document that could be used to satisfy the voter-ID requirement," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), a key force in enacting the law last March. But he added, "I am not against the principle of other entities having the ability to issue cards, as long as we have uniform standards and safeguards in place."

On Thursday, Allegheny and Montgomery Counties said they would begin issuing their own ID cards through county-run facilities.

The move exploits a loophole in the new law that allows both colleges and senior-care centers to provide such cards to anyone who lives in the county - not just to the people who attend those colleges or reside in those centers.

The counties' officials explained their decisions by citing complaints from residents who had run into trouble obtaining the required photo ID through the state's preferred route, the Department of Transportation.

Some said PennDot workers turned them away for failing to bring sufficient proof of identity, while others were rejected for bringing documents with slightly mismatched names.

"This does not solve the problems across the Commonwealth," Montgomery County Commissioners Chairman, Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said of his county's plan. "But it is an important step in the right direction for our constituents."

The state Attorney General's Office did not return calls Thursday or Friday seeking comment on the legality of the county-issued IDs.

The Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections, described the move Friday as legal but inappropriate.

"It's clearly contrary to the intent of the law," said spokesman Ron Ruman. "We believe it raises tremendous safety and liability issues. If my child attended a school that was giving out such IDs, I would have serious concerns."

Pileggi voiced his misgivings in an interview Friday, saying many questions remain unanswered: Would out-of-county residents be able to obtain identification cards in Montgomery and Allegheny Counties? What documentation would be needed to get them? Would those requirements change from county to county?

Though Montgomery County has yet to spell out exactly what it will require from voters seeking photo ID through Parkhouse, its county-run nursing home in Royersford, Shapiro said Friday that cards issued to people other than residents of the home would be clearly labeled "for voting purposes only."

Pileggi endorsed the state's current method of issuing photo IDs through PennDot.

"The current status of the Commonwealth's effort to make photo ID available to voters is much improved from where we started, and should satisfy most people's need," he said.

But with apparently little opposition in the offing, other counties - even some controlled by Republican majorities - began Friday to dip their toes into the ID-issuing pool.

"The goal of the voter ID law isn't to disenfranchise people," said Frank Kane, chief of staff for Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham. "If people are having trouble getting those IDs and have the proper credentials, we're happy to provide them."

Kane plans to broach the topic with the county's Republican-controlled government next week.

In GOP-held Northampton County, County Executive John Stoffa said Friday he was considering a similar plan.

But county leaders in some of the strongest Republican pockets of the state remained dubious.

Carl Gefken, chief operating officer in Berks County, said he planned to wait to see the outcome of the pending court challenge to the voter-ID law before starting any discussions with government officials about launching their own plan to issue identification cards.

This week, the state Supreme Court ordered a lower court judge to reconsider whether the state's efforts to implement the new law go far enough in making sure no one is disenfranchised. A decision is expected by Oct. 2.

The law's backers argue that the photo-ID requirement is necessary to guard against voter fraud at the polls.

Opponents maintain the fraud argument is a smokescreen for GOP efforts to disenfranchise low-income, urban, minority, and elderly voters - those least likely to have valid driver's licenses, the most common form of acceptable identification under the new law.

The idea for county-issued IDs emerged as a footnote in debate over the law in a Commonwealth Court hearing in August.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents a number of voters and civic groups challenging the law in court, pointed to the nursing home and college exemption as an example of the statute's flaws.

Ever since that hearing, said Philadelphia's top election official, Stephanie Singer, the idea of exploiting the loophole had circulated in Democratic circles.

The trouble was, few institutions were willing to take the first step to implement such a plan, Singer said Friday in an interview.

But with only weeks to go before the Nov. 6 election and the law's future still unresolved in court, more counties - including her own - are likely to follow Montgomery and Allegheny Counties' lead, Singer said.

"The roadblock was finding a university or a care facility brave enough to go it alone," she said. "Now, because of what's happening in Montgomery and Allegheny, they don't have to."


Contact Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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