Monica Yant Kinney: Voter ID backpedaling leads to umpteenth change

Posted: September 27, 2012

I have not tested this theory, but I bet officials at the Pennsylvania Department of State have never issued as many news releases touting as many substantive changes to any process as they have while attempting to explain, justify, and implement the voter ID law.

It's not enough that a cynical legislature forced bureaucrats to design, on the fly, an ID-issuing system guaranteed to frustrate and discriminate. Every time well-intentioned officials issue a fix, journalists and advocates unearth more evidence of what remains broken.

And the clock ticks on, with Election Day only six weeks away.

Yesterday, state officials took a huge step by admitting that they'd made it way too much of a hassle for folks to get one of the newfangled voting-only IDs.

Initially, the state required registered voters to bring piles of papers on repeat trips to PennDot centers. In a switch - announced as lawyers arguing over the law went another round before a judge in Harrisburg - folks need to give only "name, date of birth, Social Security number, and address."

Proof of residence is no longer required. And, from now on, the burden will be on PennDot workers to confirm that an applicant is already registered and, thus, worthy of an otherwise worthless ID card.

Best yet: If a voter's history can't be confirmed on the spot, additional investigation will be done on the state's dime and time.

"The applicant will not have to return to PennDot," the announcement assured. "The Department of State will mail the voter ID card."

A telling timeline

I should have known that Ellen Kaplan could produce a "Voter ID Law Timeline" on demand. The Committee of Seventy policy director has been living this state-made saga all year. She's rewritten a voter training manual nine or 10 times.

It's true, Kaplan says, that Tuesday's concession is one of several significant changes made by officials frantically trying to right wrongs inflicted under the pretense of fighting fraud.

In April, a month after the controversial law's passage, officials decreed that voters with expired licenses or state-issued IDs who remained in the PennDot database didn't need to rush to their safety deposit boxes. This change was seen primarily as an apology to seniors.

In May, the state threw a lifeline to Pennsylvania natives who couldn't locate their birth certificates, saying they need not pay $10 for an official copy. They could, instead, request a free confirmation of their identity, but they still had to produce a Social Security card and two proofs of residency - harder than it appears for the old, the poor, the homeless, or crime victims.

Two months later, after it became obvious that even white-collar professionals often lack the documents needed to get a nondriver's photo ID, the state announced yet another development: the voting-only "ID of last resort."

Those cards became available in August, but until yesterday, even the so-called easy option was proving to be a royal pain.

Is it enough?

"The state is trying to make it easier," Kaplan contends. "They've responded to problems. But the ultimate question is, 'Is it enough?'"

"You still have to go to PennDot," Kaplan reminds me, prompting a discussion about all the would-be voters who can't or won't make that trip. They're not just feisty Philadelphians. Nine Pennsylvania counties have no license center; 20 have facilities with limited hours.

Since the Supreme Court remanded the case back to Commonwealth Court, it's again up to Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. to decide the law's fate based on whether insurmountable hurdles still remain to keep people from voting. Tuesday's backtracking aimed to please and appease.

"This law rolled out so quickly, everyone learned as we went along," Kaplan notes. "Well, everyone but the General Assembly."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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