Swing State Strategy? Pennsylvania May Be Next to Restrict Voting Rights

Mar 12, 2012

Last week, Pennsylvania took a step closer to joining the ranks of states with strict photo voter ID laws, mandating that citizens have state-issued photo identification cards to vote. The bill reeks of Tea Party and ALEC influence, as is the case in most all other states that have passed similar voter ID bills. Eight states already have such laws set for November, and several others are debating them. Pennsylvania would be a particularly significant addition to the list, given its history as a key swing state in presidential elections.

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates as many as five million registered voters could have trouble on Election Day due to new voting laws.

On March 7, Pennsylvania’s Senate passed HB 934, the photo voter ID mandate bill, with all Republican votes, after the House of Representatives passed a stricter version last year. The House is expected to approve the Senate’s version when it comes back their way and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign it into law. It will go into effect for the November presidential elections.

As was the case in almost all of the other states with photo voter ID laws, the legislation was passed with purely Republican votes, and will be signed into law by a Republican governor. Only Rhode Island has passed a photo voter ID bill with Democratic support.

"When you look closer at the data, it becomes clear that particular communities will be disproportionately impacted by this bill," said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Seniors, racial minorities, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities are more likely to not have ID than the majority population."

The Republican who introduced the Pennsylvania bill, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, happens to have a long record of introducing (and passing) conservative legislation, most notoriously for harsh legislation against immigrants.

A glance at his list of legislation for the 2011-12 regular session reveals a flock of bills that infringe upon the rights of minorities: an "illegal immigration" bill, a "definition of marriage" anti-same sex marriage bill, a "right to work" anti-union bill, and a "14th Amendment Misapplication" bill, which would "clarify" the U.S. Constitution amendment that not only granted citizenship to slaves, but to any child born in the United States. According to Rep. Metcalfe, this amendment has been used incorrectly, particularly in the case of children born to Latino immigrants. Under his new bill, citizenship would only be granted to a child "with at least one parent who owes no allegiance to any foreign country or a child without citizenship or nationality in any foreign country."

Rep. Metcalfe also introduced a bill that would require that candidates for public office, including the U.S. president and vice president, prove their citizenship.

Almost his entire agenda for the current session, emboldened by a new Republican-led legislature and governor, has been about limiting the rights of minorities. His emphasis on proving citizenship might be too effective in making sure that anyone who is not white might have a difficult time voting or even running for office.

Unsurprisingly, Rep. Metcalfe, who’s bragged about being "a Tea Party-er before it was cool" is an ALEC-yte, having attended, on taxpayers’ dimes, the conferences of the American Legislative Exchange Council, where the only thing exchanged are tips from wealthy business executives on how Republican policymakers can create ultra-conservative legislation. The Republican representative for Pittsburgh follows a long line of other Republican legislators in other states who have led their general assemblies to the passage of photo voter ID bills, some of which were modeled after ALEC’s draft voter legislation.

Read more about Metcalfe and his ALEC ties in this comprehensive profile of him from Philadelphia City Paper’s Daniel Denvir here:

The other boogeyman in this voter ID bill is the lumped-up ACORN, which has all but collapsed after the 2008 election under the weight of Republican attacks and some of its own internal turmoil. Several ACORN workers in Pittsburgh were charged with voting fraud for false signatures collected in voter registration drive campaigns. According to the ACLU, though, those charges happened due to their county election division’s request to have them turn over all collected registration applications, regardless of whether they were complete or had accurate information.

But as with every other state passing these laws, instances of statewide voter fraud are close to nonexistent, and in the tiny fraction of times it does appear it’s not at the polls where voter IDs would be used. Even with the ACORN case, the charges stemmed from voter registration, not what happened in a voting booth.

It will cost taxpayers over $11 million to implement the new laws according to The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. The fiscal note drawn up for the bill by the senate’s appropriation committee quotes something less, but nothing cheap–over $5 million for this year alone, with $1 million of it charged to the state taxpayers and $4 million charged to the federal government through the Help America Vote Act. The state’s assessment, meanwhile, says the law could cost as much as $2.2 million, charged to the state, to implement it every year hereafter.

Lawyers from the Advancement Project say that the state’s figures are inaccurate. In a letter to the state Senate, Advancement Project’s consulting attorney for Pennsylvania, Marian K. Schneider, noted that there exists "wildly varying estimates" for the number of registered voters without photo ID.

In the senate appropriations committee report, it states that less than 1 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania don’t have a state-issued voter ID card. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, using 2006 Department of Transportation figures, cites many times more than that: 691,909 people. And last December, the state’s Bureau of Elections stated that they didn’t have data for over 3 million registered voters from the Department of Transportation.

Writes Schneider, "It is impossible to have a sense of the costs of implementing this bill without having a reliable estimate of the number of Pennsylvanians who do not have PennDOT-issued identification."

Pennsylvania is a perennial key swing state, which swung toward Obama in 2008 and to the Democratic candidate in both of the preceding presidential elections, though by slim margins. It could swing to the right at any time, and with Tea Partyers like Metcalfe and a Republican governor, it’s hard to divorce this fact from the push for strict photo voter ID laws there.

In a recent statement about his voter ID bill, Metcalfe said, "Any elected official who opposes requiring valid photo ID at the polls needs to be asked if allowing for cheating at the ballot box is necessary for them to win," though with scant evidence of this "cheating." What’s evident is that changing the rules for voting at the ballot box may unnecessarily cause thousands to lose their voting rights.

This story has been updated since publication.