County help on voter ID is picture-perfect solution

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I remember an old wire service reporter saying that the three times he felt most patriotic were when newspaper presses rolled, watching the kickoff of high school football games and voting on Election Day.

It does feel good to vote, even in years when you don't much like the choices. So it's been a curious turn for Pennsylvania, the cradle of American democracy, to be in court fighting to keep a new law that may keep thousands of longtime voters from casting ballots.

The new voter identification law sounds innocent. Who doesn't have a photo ID? Lots of old people and poor people, it turns out, and even the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office stipulated in court that it had no evidence of in-person voter fraud. It had no evidence of it in other states either, or that voter fraud likely would occur if the photo ID law were overturned.

So why would Republican majorities in America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature take the time to pass this anyway? Well, a lot of those elderly voters who don't carry IDs tend to vote Democratic.

Mind you, I wouldn't put it past the Democrats to come up with an equally dubious way to help their side. Elections are a blood sport. The contending parties aren't interested in fashioning a model republic. Job One is grabbing the reins of power, particularly in a presidential election year. So I have to hand it to Allegheny County Democrats for finding a wrinkle in the state law that has left Republicans sputtering.

Two days after the state Supreme Court ordered a lower court to either ensure "liberal access'' to IDs or throw out this new law, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced that the county's community colleges and nursing homes will issue photo IDs. Anyone who is registered to vote can show up on campus and get one by providing their date of birth and some basic form of ID. A current utility bill, a recent paycheck, a government check or a firearm permit will do.

Details are being worked out, but the law already says IDs from state-affiliated colleges or nursing homes are sufficient for voting. That was undoubtedly put there to serve college students and nursing home residents, but the law doesn't explicitly say that. So Department of State spokesman Ron Ruman was left with pretty shaky complaints like the possibility of non-students using these voter IDs to ride free on Port Authority buses.

Anyone who's seen the county's photo IDs knows there's no chance of that mistake. They're printed on plain 81/2-by-11-inch paper, with "County of Allegheny" above an ID photo that's bigger than any pocket ID all by itself. It looks nothing like a student ID. The IDs issued by nursing homes are set up the same way. If that weren't enough, "Voter Identification'' is in big letters and ''valid only for purposes of voter identification'' is at the bottom.

Mr. Fitzgerald's plan, which is being copied in Montgomery County, will help provide that "liberal access'' the high court demands, but there needs to be a statewide solution. The justices cited the state's Declaration of Rights that promises "free and equal elections.'' The court likewise notes that the population most at risk of losing their right to vote under this law includes "members of some of the most vulnerable segments of our society (the elderly, disabled members of our community and the financially disadvantaged).''

The sponsor of the state's ID bill disrespectfully disagrees. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, said on Mike Pintek's KDKA radio show that "we have a lot of people out there that are too lazy to get up and get out there and get the ID they need.''

Lazy. Right. Just a year ago, the state's top election official lauded Pennsylvanians who had voted for 50 straight years, making them members of the state's Voter Hall of Fame. The AFL-CIO found that about a quarter of the active voters in this group were named in separate state data listing those who do not match exactly with PennDOT ID data, or have IDs set to expire before the election.

So more than 1,000 elderly Pennsylvanians who haven't missed an election since the Kennedy administration may be Hall of Famers, but that was before the state designed this new obstacle course. Get thee to a community college, grandma, or you may be in for a November surprise.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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