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The Latest Wave of Cynical Electoral Machinations

January 4, 2012

The presidential campaign season just kicked into high gear last night with the quadrennial ritual of Iowa’s inscrutable primary caucuses. Getting somewhat less attention is the unfortunate (but typical) election-time legal maneuvering now in full swing: gerrymandering and passage of partisan election laws. Both parties are guilty of these tactics, but in Pennsylvania Republicans are currently driving the bus, due to their control of the governor’s mansion and both houses of the Assembly.

Map of New 7th Congressional District in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Created by Daniel McGlone of Azavea.

Crafting congressional district boundaries to promote favorable election results is old hat, but some boundary redraws stick out  more than others. The Philly suburbs just got a doozy last month. The 7th congressional district is now the eighth least compact in the nation. It stretches from the Delaware border northwest past Reading, northeast past Lansdale and west almost to Harrisburg, with a tiny middle portion only 800 feet wide. If incumbent Pat Meehan wins the privilege of representing this sprawling district in November, it may well be thanks to the redraw, which shifted the district majority from slightly Democrat majority to slightly Republican.

Also on the Pennsylvania Assembly’s agenda is a bill to require photo i.d. at the polls. A national trend, such legislation is generally offered as an antidote to voter fraud. But critics have loudly pointed out the lack of evidence of voter fraud and the potential for disenfranchisement— substantial number of citizens lack qualifying i.d., most of them from marginalized groups including seniors, the poor, and racial minorities.  Some critics have even compared voter i.d. laws to laws from earlier eras, such as poll taxes, that specifically aimed at disenfranchising Black voters. Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder took the rare measure of invoking the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to block a South Carolina voter i.d. law, citing its disparate impact on minority voters.

Pennsylvania’s law, requested by Governor Tom Corbett, has passed the House and is pending in the Senate. Although the senate committee responded to major criticisms of the bill by widening the list of identification types accepted, including i.d.’s issued by Pennsylvania colleges and nursing homes, the law would still be one of the nation’s most restrictive. Most interesting to me were remarks by Senate State Government Committee Chairman Charles McIlhinney, who said that he has seen no proof for or against the bill, i.e., that voting fraud is commonplace or that the law would prevent many eligible citizens from voting. Given what’s at stake—the integrity of our electoral process—I’m alarmed that the legislature is passing a law without making factual findings. If this is really about balancing voter-fraud deterrence against protecting the voting rights of marginalized citizens, our legislature has a duty to weigh those competing interests in an informed manner.

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