Pennsylvania election officials announced plans Friday to reduce the number of documents required to obtain a photo ID card that will allow voters to cast ballots in November.
Would-be voters who do not already have driver's licenses or other acceptable photo IDs will still have to travel to offices of the state Transportation Department to obtain the new cards.
But beginning the last week in August, when the new cards are supposed to become available, citizens will not have to produce birth certificates and Social Security cards, as currently required, to prove their identities to PennDot personnel.
Under the new requirements, the new photo ID cards will be available to registered voters who can provide a birth date, Social Security number, and two proofs of residency, such as utility bills.
PennDot will check immediately with the Department of State on the voter's registration status and, if the status is confirmed, issue a voter ID card on the spot, the Department of State announced.
"We believe these new cards will be a safety net for those who may not currently possess all of the documents they need for a standard photo ID from PennDot," Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele said in a news release. "Our goals are to continue making voters aware of the new voter ID law and helping those who may not have proper identification obtain it."
The Corbett administration and Republican lawmakers pushed the new law through the legislature in March, arguing that it was necessary to uncover and prevent voter fraud. At the time, Aichele estimated that 99 percent of the state's voters already had driver's licenses or other identification that would meet the law's requirements.
A subsequent effort to match PennDot and voter registration databases led Aichele to release figures on July 3 suggesting that as many as 758,000 registered voters, 9.2 percent of the state electorate, did not have PennDot IDs.
Commonwealth Court is scheduled to begin hearings Wednesday on a lawsuit challenging the law as a violation of the state constitution that is likely to deprive thousands of their voting rights.
The proposed new ID card, with relaxed document requirements, drew a mixed reaction from civic organizations trying to educate the public about the new law.
"If the new law is in place, we certainly want the state to do whatever it can to help people participate. To that extent, this new development is an improvement of the current rules," said Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, vice president and policy director of the Committee of 70, the Philadelphia civic group that has helped organize a Voter ID Coalition statewide.
"The reality is that we still don't know all the details or when it is going to be put into place," Kaplan said. "If there was a genuine interest in limiting damage from the law, we would have seen this new card by now. . . . This drip, drip, drip of changes might make things easier but it also causes confusion in the public."
She said she was about to rewrite the coalition's guide to the new law - for the ninth time, after previous state modifications.
Linda Riley, director of communications and legislative affairs for the Philadelphia Corp. on Aging, said: "This is certainly an improvement, but it's still not ideal because there are thousands of older Philadelphians who have mobility restrictions who will have to go to a PennDot office to get the identification they need to vote.
"It seems to me they're scrambling to fix a broken system. They've been very disorganized. They should go back to the drawing board, really think hard about their rules, and try to implement this law next year."
A spokesman for Aichele's department, Nick Winkler, said state officials had been working on the new, more simplified ID program for the last two months.
But the first word to reach lawyers fighting the law in the Commonwealth Court case came last week, according to Jennifer R. Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
"Clearly, the state realizes it has a huge problem on its hands," said a statement by the center and its co-counsel, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, and the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter.
"This does not change the fact that the commonwealth is expecting people without driver's licenses to somehow get to PennDot centers, sometimes miles from their homes, during limited hours. It certainly is of no help to the elderly or those with disabilities who will still have to find a way to PennDot and potentially wait hours to get the new ID."
Clarke said that in sworn depositions as late as Wednesday, PennDot executive Kurt Myers, in charge of the agency's motor vehicle offices, was providing different details of the new program from those Aichele announced Friday.
Clarke said Myers testified that people born in Pennsylvania seeking voter ID would be asked to make two trips to PennDot if they could not produce a birth certificate - first to fill out forms seeking the ID, and again to get their pictures taken once PennDot verified their births with the state Health Department.
"What it indicates to me is the haste with which this has been put together," Clarke said.
Department of State officials did not return calls seeking comment on Clarke's assertion.