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Voter ID bill one step closer to becoming (unnecessary, expensive) law

Today, Pennsylvania came one step closer to fixing a problem it probably doesn't have.

A state Senate panel this morning tweaked a measure to require all voters to show photo identification at the polls.

The amended legislation now would allow for university ID cards and those issued by nursing-home-type facilities to be accepted, and would require more information from those seeking an absentee ballot. It passed the Senate State Governmental Committee on a 6-5 vote.

Daryl Metcalfe's voter ID legislation had already passed the House and has the support of the Corbett administration, so it just needs to pass the full Senate to become law.

Right now, Pennsylvania voters only need to present ID the first time they vote at a polling place. This legislation would require us to present ID every time.

For most Pennsylvanians, this isn't a big deal. But 3.9 percent of registered PA voters, or 320,000 people, don't have an ID that would be acceptable under this law, according to the Committee of Seventy's guide to the issue (that number will come down with these tweaks, but it's still significant).

Most of the controversy surrounding this bill has focused on the fact that many of those who don't have ID belong to demographics that traditionally favors Democrats (elderly, low-income minorities). Democrats have argued that the move is an attempt to disenfranchise them.

Supporters of the bill argue that it's an attempt to fight voter fraud. But here's the problem: There's no evidence of a meaningful voter fraud problem in Pennsylvania. In 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 a grand total of four Pennsylvanians were convicted of voter fraud. Now, it's possible that a mass of fraud has gone undetected. But that would be a surprise, considering that voter impersonation is a high-risk, low-reward proposition.

It seems to us that the state should find some evidence that fraud is a problem before embracing a solution that will make it harder for some folks to vote -- and cost a bunch of money, too. The bill's fiscal note estimates a cost of $4.3 million to distribute photo IDs in 2011-2012 alone.

We don't think supporters of the bill have made a persuasive case that it would be money well spent.

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