Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Block the Vote


With polls holding steady for months now showing President Obama with a lead over Governor Romney in PA settling somewhere in between 6 and 12 points, you'd think PA would be moving from "toss-up" to "leans Obama" to "likely Obama" in all of the electoral college models. The demographic trends of the voters in PA are making it increasingly less swing-y than most of the other dozen or so "swing states", and it seems destined to move toward a "leans Democratic" state in future Presidential elections.

Yet with all of this news, why does PA still look to be hotly-contested this year? Well, obviously the economy is first and foremost on everyone's minds and could swing any election from incumbent to challenger fairly quickly. But secondly, and probably even more importantly is the new PA Voter ID law. If large numbers of Obama supporters are not able to vote in November due to this new law, the state becomes a toss-up.

In 2011 the state passed a new law that as it stands now would disenfranchise over 750K voters or roughly 10% of the electorate. And they made the law intentionally confusing, with some forms of government issued IDs acceptable and others not.

If your goal is to make sure everyone eventually gets the ID and is able to vote, you'd perhaps have a waiver/notice in place for this election and have the new ID be official next election. That way you would have accurate data for roughly how many waivers were issued and thus how many people this actually affected. Then there'd be an education campaign by interested groups to get them the proper ID. And at least initially it would  take steps to ensure that they are given the proper ID in a timely way at little or no cost.

If your goal is to try to prevent people from voting, who are likely to vote for candidates in the other political party by a wide margin, then the implementation of the law would look a lot like what is happening now. PA House Republican leader, Mike Turzai, admitted as much a few weeks ago.

The obvious point of these laws is to frustrate and confuse the very young and very old, poorer, non-white demographic groups who usually vote Democratic by large numbers, and ultimately suppress their votes. Someone like myself with more money and flexible work hours, who is more educated about this law, would find the time to get any proper ID questions straightened out. Someone who is an hourly shift worker, using public transportation, and not reading news sites on the internet on a regular basis, has neither the same level of knowledge about the law, nor the equal ability to ensure their vote is protected.

Voters in Norfolk, VA wait in long lines to vote in Nov. 2008 (source: USA Today)

There are so many other "real" voting problems in this country; from poorer neighborhoods being forced to use shoddier voting machines than wealthier neighborhoods (resulting in things like more "under-votes" that aren't counted - remember those from the 2000 election?), poorer neighborhoods often given fewer voting machines forcing voters into ridiculously long lines just to vote (see image above), to no paper trails to verify the votes in electronic voting machines. If the problems with voting in the 2000 election didn't inspire people to implement voting reform laws, so the ability to vote and you have your vote counted is more equal no matter who you are or where you live, it's likely nothing will.

All of these things could be fixed with some more funding and a little effort at the state and local level. Instead GOP legislatures are using scarce budget funds to implement a new voter ID law, whose ultimate result will not be preventing voter fraud (which is virtually non-existent), but in preventing thousands of eligible voters from exercising their constitutionally protected rights, due to a technicality created by the new law.

There is a hearing on this in the PA Commonwealth Court on July 25. I expect them to throw out or halt this law, citing the equal protection clause among other things, but stranger things have happened. If the law is upheld, voting rights activist groups are going to be forced to spend time and money trying to educate and organize the voters who need the new ID between now and the registration deadline in September.

An editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News has more background on this and information on how to get assistance obtaining proper voting ID.
In the meantime, Pennsylvanians without current PennDOT identification can act to protect their rights by beginning the process to obtain acceptable identification. A nonpartisan coalition of more than 100 organizations is ready to help. Check the Committee of Seventy's website ( for information or call 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-866-687-8683).

Don't let your right to vote be taken away.

Update: Dave Weigel of Slate has an excellent take on this here.

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