Pennsylvania’s Voter I.D. Law and the National Voting Rights War
This morning, Governor Corbett signed one of the nation’s strictest voter-identification laws. It requires voters to present photo i.d. that meet strict criteria at every election. In contrast, Pennsylvania’s prior law allowed other forms of i.d., including utility bills and government checks, and was required only the first time a person voted at a new polling place. The new law purports to guard against voter impersonation, thereby vindicating the “one person, one vote” principle of Baker v. Carr. However, critics—among them the ACLU, AARP and NAACP—counter that creating an additional barrier to voting impinges upon the right to vote, which the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed “fundamental” because it is “preservative of all rights.”
Despite the success of the bill’s proponents, the facts powerfully favor the opposition. The bill’s proponents, including Governor Corbett, acknowledge the lack of evidence that voter impersonation is a problem. Indeed, the bi-partisan County Commissioners of Pennsylvania opposed the bill, noting that systems to deter voter fraud are already in place and that the new bill will cause new problems, such as longer lines at the polls and voter confusion. Philadelphia City Commission chair Stephanie Singer, who runs city elections, notes that the best impersonation prevention tools are poll worker training, data forensics, and investigation of voter rolls.
To add insult to injury, this ineffectual solution to an unproven problem will cost taxpayers between four and eleven million dollars. That’s a small slice of the budget, but it’s a significant additional expense when the state budget has been slashed to the bone. For example, the $4.3 million low estimate for the law’s budgetary cost is roughly equal to recent state cuts to funding of libraries and adult literacy.
Even worse, marginalized and underserved communities are the most likely to be disenfranchised by the new law. For example, 18% of the elderly do not have photo i.d., according to Karen Buck of the Senior Law Project. Indeed, concerns over the disparate impact of voter-i.d. requirements has led the U.S. Department of Justice to take the rare step of denying approval to laws in South Carolina and Texas, pursuant to the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Likewise, a state court in Wisconsin has invalidated a voter i.d. law in that state, declaring, “Voter fraud is no more poisonous to our democracy than voter suppression. Indeed they are two heads on the same monster.”
Concerns over the adverse effects of the law have particular force given Governor Corbett’s campaign-trail remarks suggesting he favors vote suppression efforts. Indeed, Wesley Payne—a member of the Bar Association’s Board of Governors cabinet—has thoughtfully analogized the law to pernicious voting barriers of yesteryear. He asked whether there is a meaningful difference between the speculative threat of voter impersonation and the imaginary ills addressed by earlier invidiously discriminatory voting hurdles, such as literacy tests and poll taxes.
Our nation’s history has been one of increasing inclusivity in the democracy-affirming grant of franchise. We have lowered or removed barriers to vote along lines of religion, socioeconomic status, race, sex and age. In the U.S., the only persons still categorically excluded from voting are children, the clinically insane, and some criminals. We cannot now legitimately justify exclusion from the vote of marginalized citizens—such as seniors, racial minorities, and the poor—in the name of an imagined threat.