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Push for voter ID is a threat to turnout

Some Harrisburg lawmakers want to require photo identification at the polls. But why?

By Robert M. Brandon

Last week's relatively problem-free Pennsylvania primary was the latest to demonstrate that requiring photo identification at the polls is a solution in search of a problem.

People simply don't risk prison time to impersonate other voters. In 2008, more than six million Pennsylvanians went to the polls for the presidential election, and only four were charged with misrepresentation.

So why did the House State Government Committee recently approve a bill to require photo ID of Pennsylvania voters, a program that would cost more than $11 million to initiate and millions more to run each year?

The county clerks responsible for administering the state's elections say the legislation is a bad idea.

"Administration of elections generally, and of polling places, is a responsibility we take seriously. Were the question of fraudulent voting an issue, we would be calling for legislation such as these proposals, and perhaps other measures, to deal with the problem," the clerks said in testimony recently submitted to the State Government Committee. "But we find no evidence - substantiated by a search of case records and anecdotal information from the counties - that it is an issue. And so we believe a requirement to present ID at all elections is a solution to a problem that does not exist."

While it's not clear why such a measure is needed to protect the integrity of the state's elections, what is clear is that it would stop many qualified voters from casting ballots. Many will be hampered by the difficulty of getting a photo ID, and longer lines and confusion at the polls may deter others, according to the county clerks.

But doesn't everyone have a photo ID in this day and age? No, and those who don't belong to groups that are already underrepresented in the electorate - including minorities, people with disabilities, the elderly, and the poor, many of whom don't own cars.

Studies in Georgia and Wisconsin have shown that African American and Latino voters are much less likely to have driver's licenses than white voters are. National studies have shown that blacks are three times as likely as whites to lack a driver's license. And voting-age citizens earning less than $35,000 a year are more than twice as likely to lack government-issued ID as those earning more than that.

Highly mobile younger voters, particularly students, would also face greater barriers to participation. The legislation conspicuously excludes student IDs as an acceptable form of voter identification.

What's more, the bill would effectively levy a poll tax, forcing people to spend money to be able to vote. Although the legislation would allow the state Department of Transportation to distribute non-driver photo identification at no charge, the documents required to get such identification would cost money and time. Many citizens, especially among the elderly, simply do not have a birth certificate on hand or the freedom to get the required documents and negotiate the application process.

The legislation would allow voters without acceptable identification to cast provisional ballots. But those ballots would be counted only if the voters who cast them go to county headquarters within six days and produce identification or sign an affidavit attesting to their inability to comply due to a religious objection or indigence. Of course, many of the very individuals who lack ID will also find it difficult to travel to county offices and take the steps needed to assure their ballots are counted.

Based on the debate and party-line vote on this legislation, a cynical observer might have concluded that the legislature's Republican majority wants to suppress the votes of groups that generally vote Democratic. It's certainly true that photo-ID legislation is being pushed in other states where Republicans have recently taken control of legislatures.

In any case, Pennsylvania's legislature should be working to encourage more qualified voters to vote, not putting up barriers to participation.