Voter ID outreach letter causes confusion
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Paula Calabrese, secretary of the Oakmont Democratic Committee, gave little thought to the letter she received earlier this month from the Department of State explaining the new statewide voter identification law. A longtime voter who has not missed a primary or general election in more than 20 years, Ms. Calabrese assumed the letter had little to do with her.
She was wrong.
The letter was sent specifically to Ms. Calabrese and some 758,000 voters statewide whose names in the voter registration database do not match a name in the PennDOT database -- an attempt to find voters most likely to be affected by the new law, which requires the state's 8.2 million registered voters to present a state-approved photo ID at the polls Nov. 6.
A mismatch in names can occur for one of two reasons: if a registered voter does not have an identification from the state Department of Transportation or if a typo or middle name appears in one database but not the other.
Ms. Calabrese is in the latter group. Her voter registration is listed under "Paula Ann Calabrese" while her driver's license reads "Paula A. Calabrese." But like many others with similar discrepancies, she said she is confused why she received the letter and unsure if or how she may be affected at the polls in November. The letter did not answer either of these questions.
"I thought it was just a notice sent to everyone saying, 'Don't forget, you need voter ID,' " she said of the letter, which lists valid IDs under the law and explains how to acquire a free PennDOT photo ID. "There was nothing in it to make me think I might be inaccurately registered. And there was nothing that said what I should do next."
Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Department of State, said voters like Ms. Calabrese should have no problem at the polls as long as the name on their ID is a close enough match to the one on their voter registration. He said they were sent letters because there was no way to distinguish between them and the voters who lack PennDOT IDs.
Voters without IDs will not be allowed to vote in the Nov. 6 election unless they acquire a valid ID before then, he said. Acceptable IDs include Pennsylvania driver's licenses, U.S. passports and photo IDs issued by state and local governments, nursing homes and Pennsylvania universities. All must have expiration dates.
But if voters who receive the letter skim over it the way Ms. Calabrese did, they may not realize they are ineligible to vote until it is too late.
That is the concern of House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, one of the law's more vocal critics, who received a letter himself because he registered to vote under the name "Francis J." though his driver's license reads "Frank J." He said the state should have specified in the letter that recipients had been flagged in the department's database review.
"The letter opens by saying the state wants everyone to vote," he said. "I thought, 'That's great, so do I,' and then threw it away. I think if the state is notifying you that your right to vote is in jeopardy, they should come out and say that. Otherwise people are going to throw it away and be ill-prepared to move forward to protect their rights."
Bill McElligott, a voter in Mr. Dermody's district who also received the letter, said that because the letter reads like an information brochure rather than a warning, voters who have never before had a problem voting will not take the time to read it closely. Mr. McElligott, 71, said he threw the letter away because he has voted without difficulty his whole life.
Mike Lieberth, another voter who received the letter, said he assumed he was receiving it because his middle initial, "W," appears on his voter registration form but not on his driver's license. Still, he said, he wished the letter had been more explicit about the reason it was sent.
The state intended the letter to be primarily informational, Mr. Ruman said. If the letter had told voters their right to vote was at risk, he said, it may have frightened many voters who have valid identification and will be able to vote Nov. 6.
"We knew that some folks who had legitimate IDs would receive the letter," he said. "We wanted to alert people of the specifics of the law so that people with IDs would not be concerned and people without them would see a list of valid IDs they could use. We didn't want to be overly alarming to anyone."
Mr. Dermody, for his part, does not plan to change his ID to match his voter registration. That means a poll worker in his precinct will have to determine whether "Frank" and "Francis" are close enough to constitute a match. Mr. Dermody said he worries that poll workers, who are not mandated to undergo training before implementing the new law, will hesitate to accept IDs with spelling variations or typos.
"My fate, whether or not I have the right to vote, is going to be decided by someone at the polls," he said. "That's an absurd result that is clearly meant to suppress voters."
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said he plans to rule on the constitutionality of the law next week. Lawyers for both sides presented their closing arguments Thursday in Harrisburg.
First Published August 6, 2012 12:06 am