The argument in favor of Pennsylvania's new voter ID law can be summed up this way: You need photo identification to cash a check, board an airplane, secure health care, buy pharmaceuticals or alcohol, so what's the big deal about needing one to vote?
On its face, the argument is simple, commonsensical, compelling. On closer analysis, its infirmities become apparent, especially when compared with the procedures that long have been in place to prevent in-person voter fraud.
One can judge whether a law is good or bad by asking whether the law addresses a critical problem and seeks to solve the problem rationally. The Pennsylvania Legislature has banned texting while driving because of the overwhelming evidence that it causes motor vehicle accidents. Similarly, the Legislature requires motorists to give bicyclists a 4-foot buffer when passing.
The ostensible purpose behind Pennsylvania's voter ID law is to prevent in-person voter fraud, which occurs when someone appears at a polling place pretending to be someone else and attempts to vote as that other person. The public record demonstrates that in-person voter fraud is virtually nonexistent.
From January 2004 through February 2012, I served as Allegheny County solicitor. One of my more important clients was the county Elections Division, which is responsible for registering voters, maintaining voter records, training poll workers and conducting elections. One notable aspect of that representation was responding to complaints of impropriety, whether by candidates, partisans or voters.
Never in my eight years as county solicitor did anyone accuse a voter in Allegheny County of in-person voter fraud. Additionally, lawyers for the commonwealth have admitted in court that they can present no evidence of in-person voter fraud ever occurring in Pennsylvania. With or without the new voter ID law, I expect this will continue to be the case because of long-standing protections in Pennsylvania law.
First, the criminal penalty for voter fraud of up to a $15,000 fine and seven years in prison acts as a significant deterrent. And what would be the payoff for someone attempting to commit in-person voter fraud? If you pass a bad check, at least you get money. If you commit in-person voter fraud, you get to vote, maybe a couple of times, which is extremely unlikely to affect an election. This minimal "benefit" clearly does not justify the risk of serving years in prison and coughing up thousands of dollars.
OK, let's say a bunch of fraudsters conspire to descend on the polls to steal an election. Theoretically, this could happen; practically, it never will.
Given the lack of evidence of one instance of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania, it is doubtful that someone could pull off such a logistically difficult exercise. First is the problem of finding enough people willing to risk their freedom. Second, existing checks would almost certainly detect such a plot.
When you register to vote or change your registration, you fill out a standard form that contains, among other things, your name, address, party affiliation (if any) and your signature. You must provide a driver's license or PennDOT photo ID number or the last four digits of your Social Security number. The form states that if you falsify information, a perjury conviction could get you up to seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
This information is entered into the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, also known as the SURE system. All election officials in the commonwealth have access to this database.
Allegheny County has more than 1,300 voting districts. Each district has at least five poll workers who reside in that district. In most instances, at least a couple of them have been working at that polling place for many years. Even if you do not vote regularly, they probably recognize you and know your name. They are your friends, neighbors and relatives. They don't need to see a photo ID to know who you are. The point is, for the vast majority of voters, a poll worker can recognize, by sight, whether the person standing there is who he claims to be.
Nevertheless, they will check your name and that of anyone they don't recognize in the "poll book," which lists all registered voters in the district and contains an image of each voter's signature from her registration application. A poll worker will confirm that your name is listed and then will tear out a certificate for you to sign. The poll worker will compare your signature to the image of the signature in the poll book. You can vote only if they match.
In 2002, after the contested 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the "Help America Vote Act." HAVA requires any voter who registered by mail and who has not previously voted in a federal election at a particular polling place to show valid photo ID or a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document showing the name and address of the voter. To comply with HAVA, the poll book highlights those registered voters who must show HAVA-qualified ID before casting a ballot.
So, what does our new voter ID law add to the mix? Nothing. Especially when you consider that those who support it cannot point to a single case of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania.
What it will do is disenfranchise thousands if not tens of thousands of mostly poor, disabled and elderly Pennsylvanians who will find it too difficult to get the proper ID or won't find out they need one in time to vote. What it will do is allow a highly partisan poll watcher to cause mischief by challenging a legitimate voter if, for instance, his or her ID doesn't exactly match his registration material. What it will do is create ill will.
The voter ID law is a solution in search of a problem and nothing more than a ham-handed attempt to suppress voter turnout by placing superfluous barriers between qualified voters and their right to vote.
Michael H. Wojcik is now senior counsel at the Pittsburgh-based law firm Thorp Reed & Armstrong (mwojcik@ thorpreed.com). First Published September 26, 2012 4:00 AM