Commentary: Pennsylvania Voter ID law is morally indefensible

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Before the case against Pennsylvania's Voter ID law got its hearing in Commonwealth Court, ID advocates could pretend they were the good guys. This campaign isn't about voter suppression, they could say with a straight face; this is about putting an end to voter fraud.

But over seven days in a Harrisburg courthouse, that plausible deniability was shredded.

Yes, it's possible that Judge Robert Simpson will let the law stand this week, when his ruling is expected. The Legislature has a well-established authority to regulate elections, and Judge Simpson may not want to meddle with that.

And, yes, even if voter ID is struck down, there will be an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

But none of that should matter. Whatever the legal basis for the law, the proceedings in Judge Simpson's court proved conclusively that voter ID -- in this form, on this timeline -- is a morally indefensible train wreck that's sure to disenfranchise legitimate voters in this November's election.

The Pennsylvania House and Senate reconvene on Sept. 24. If the courts haven't already done the job for them, repealing voter ID ought to be the first vote the Legislature takes, and the repeal ought to pass overwhelmingly.

Back in March, when the law was adopted along mostly partisan lines, leading Republican supporters of the bill (such as Gov. Tom Corbett) got away with both ridiculous predictions that voter ID would increase turnout and bogus claims that 99 percent of voters already had the necessary identification.

But that argument was aired before the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation released a list of 759,000 voters who might not have PennDOT IDs, and another list of 906,000 with expired IDs that wouldn't be accepted at polling places this November.

And it was before Azavea, the civic-minded Philadelphia data firm, published a map proving conclusively that the lack of state-issued IDs among registered voters is overwhelmingly concentrated in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

And it was before the state's attorneys agreed to stipulate in court that the commonwealth isn't aware of "any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania."

And it was before The Philadelphia Inquirer's Bob Warner demonstrated that the PennDOT list of the allegedly ID-less was full of inaccuracies (meaning that nobody really has any idea just how many legitimate voters lack the necessary documentation).

And it was before House Republican Leader Mike Turzai 'fessed up to the law's political purpose before a crowd of applauding GOP faithful, telling them that voter ID "is going to allow Gov. [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."

For political cynics like Mr. Turzai, no amount of evidence will likely be enough to change their minds on voter ID. Their object isn't better public policy, but electoral victory.

But for those who were concerned about pervasive voter fraud, and for those who simply couldn't imagine that valid voters might actually lack identification, it's past time to reconsider their assumptions.

If Mr. Corbett believed, as he said in March, that "there is no barrier to voting" because "you have to have a photo ID to go anywhere," then during the Commonwealth Court proceedings he must have realized his mistake.

The 10 plaintiffs were actual human beings, legitimate voters all, none of them with valid identification. And really, how hard is it to imagine that plenty more Philadelphians take the bus and don't have the disposable income to travel by air, and thus can get by in life without a current PennDOT ID?

For a lifelong suburbanite like Mr. Corbett, an expired driver's license might seem unfathomable. But driving is not the way transit-dependent city voters get around.

The other leg that a principled pro-voter ID advocate stands on is the assumption -- encouraged by paranoid conservative media outlets and blogs -- that voter fraud is rampant in the inner city. Philadelphians got a glimpse of how this fantasy works after a pair of self-styled New Black Panthers in paramilitary garb stood outside a polling place in the November 2008 presidential election.

They shouted slurs against white people, and some voters felt understandably intimidated. The police arrived by 10 a.m. to monitor the situation.

Still, a video was made, it went viral on YouTube, and ever since, this single and somewhat pathetic example of attempted intimidation has become a cornerstone of the right-wing conviction that urban elections are routinely rigged.

But if that's the case, why has it been so hard for voter ID proponents to come up with a multitude of documented cases of in-person voter impersonation, which is the type of fraud an ID requirement seeks to prevent?

The answer couldn't be more obvious. Voter fraud, particularly this variety, is not commonplace; it's rare. And so, to solve a problem that might not even exist, the commonwealth has enacted a law that will disenfranchise those entitled to vote.

Maybe that wasn't obvious in March. But it is today.

electionspa - state - opinion_commentary

Patrick Kerkstra is a freelance journalist and former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer.


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