State senators in Harrisburg will soon consider House Bill 934, which would require citizens to provide one of a very short list of government-issued photo IDs in order to vote. It sounds simple, but it is not. If it became law, this bill would create one of the most extreme restrictions on voting in the country -- and would threaten to needlessly disenfranchise a massive number of Pennsylvania citizens.
Many Americans don't have driver's licenses or the other photo IDs that would meet H.B. 934's narrow standards. Survey research indicates that 11 percent of voting-age citizens don't have the limited forms of government-issued photo ID that would be accepted under H.B. 934 -- even though these taxpayers and voters could prove their identity with other types of documents.
We know that 18 percent of American citizens over age 65 lack the type of photo ID required by H.B. 934, and more than 15 percent of Pennsylvania's residents are 65 or older, the fourth highest percentage in the country. In the Pittsburgh metropolitan region that number is even higher -- seniors 65 and older make up more than 17 percent of the population in five of its counties. These senior citizens are less likely to have the kind of ID needed to vote under the restrictions proposed by H.B. 934.
Some argue that 18 percent of seniors is a small group and the benefit to our elections could greatly outweigh the burden on a few elderly voters. But just as quickly as they weave this argument, it unravels. Looking only at Pennsylvania's senior population, 18 percent works out to more than 350,000 Pennsylvanians. That is 50,000 more people than reside in the entire city of Pittsburgh: a significant number by any measure.
We are not just talking about seniors. Young people, low-income citizens and minority voters also are especially at risk of losing their votes. Eighteen percent of citizens aged 18-24 and a full 25 percent of voting-age African-American citizens lack current government-issued photo ID.
"No-photo, no-vote" ID laws also are a solution in search of a problem. Proponents have tried to bait and switch the public, confusing the issue by citing alleged examples of absentee ballot abuse or improper voter registration to support the imposition of strict voter ID laws.
First, many of these claims are based upon unproven allegations. Second, and more important, asking for government photo ID on Election Day would not actually prevent the types of voter fraud these advocates cite. Indeed, most problems with election administration don't occur at the polling place!
Adding insult to injury is the cost to taxpayers during Pennsylvania's budget crisis. To avoid having these laws become illegal poll taxes, states must make IDs available for free. This can mean hundreds of thousands if not millions in lost revenue over time. And to make sure proper IDs are widely available, it might be necessary to open new driver's license centers in underserved areas or extend working hours in existing offices.
Then you can add in the money the government would need to spend on voter education to get the word out about the new requirements. In Georgia, a state that is three-quarters the size of Pennsylvania, the government had to spend more than $1.6 million just on voter education after its voter ID law was passed.
Maybe a few million seems like chump change compared to the wrenching state budget cuts Pennsylvania families endured last year -- nearly $1 billion in education cuts alone. But a few million dollars can still go a long way. The Homeowner Emergency Mortgage Assistance program cost about $10 million annually before it was axed. The TEACH early childhood education program was slashed by $6.5 million.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, the House sponsor of the photo ID bill, called the massive cuts in the 2012 budget a "small step in the right direction." It's strange that Mr. Metcalfe is enthusiastic about enormous cuts to education and relief programs but is willing to add millions in new spending to put more red tape between Pennsylvanians and the ballot box.
H.B. 934 is an unnecessary and costly measure that would not improve Pennsylvania's elections but would likely keep many Pennsylvanians -- particularly those over 65 -- from exercising their right to vote.
Keesha Gaskins is an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law in New York City ( www.brennancenter.org ).