The grass is not always greener on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. The saga of Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, which has involved all three branches of state government, is a cautionary tale of what happens when partisan politics comes unglued from any sense of limits.
The law was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in March on a straight party vote and was eagerly signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. By a strange coincidence, it is just one of a number of new voter ID laws adopted in states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors.
Pennsylvania’s version has been generally described as the most stringent of those new laws. It had the added twist of being intended to take effect for this fall’s election.
At the time of its passage, its supporters said a relatively small number of the commonwealth’s voters would be impacted and the state would have no problem handling the administrative details of implementation.
A curious feature of the initial debate was that no one claimed to have examples of voter fraud. Eventually, the defenders asserted that although voter fraud was difficult to identify, they knew it was out there. It’s hard not to think of aliens from outer space when you hear that explanation.
Truth comes out
A more truthful explanation slipped out in the spring, when the Republican House minority leader told a gathering of supporters that the law would ensure that Mitt Romney would carry the state in 2012.
A number of civil rights and public interest legal organizations challenged the law in Pennsylvania state court on the grounds that it disenfranchised voters, with a particularly heavy impact on the poor and minorities.
Additionally, they argued that the unseemly haste with which the state was moving ahead made fair implementation for the fall election impossible.
In September, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson sided with the state and concluded that the plaintiffs had not met the heavy burden of demonstrating that the law violates the state constitution.
But he missed the point altogether. What should have been the heavy burden was demonstrating that adding an obstacle to the free exercise of voting was justified by some compelling public purpose.
The plaintiffs appealed to the State Supreme Court, which came up with a decision worthy of Rube Goldberg. Rather than issuing an injunction to prevent the law from going into effect for this election, the court sent the case back to Judge Simpson with the admonition that he look again and use the standard that no one be unfairly disenfranchised in determining whether to allow the state to implement it this fall.
In the rehearing, Judge Simpson dropped hints about allowing provisional ballots for people who didn’t have the proper form of photo ID, but finally thought better of it and enjoined the law from taking effect this year.
But he didn’t make it simple. Voters are still to be asked if they have photo IDs but will be allowed to vote even if they don’t.
Simpson clearly wanted it known that the Supreme Court had forced him to do something he didn’t want to do.
Meanwhile, back in the executive branch, PennDot, which is in charge of issuing non-driver’s-license photo IDs, has been loosening and changing the required documents as the case has moved through the court system.
Estimates of the number of people on the voting rolls who don’t have photo IDs range from 80,000 to almost 800,000, yet as of last week, PennDot had issued a total of 11,000 new identification cards.
And the state is continuing with its $5 million voter education program to make people aware of the provisions of a law that is not being implemented this November and is now wrapped in a cocoon of confusion.
Beyond the norms
Politics has always been a rough, competitive business, but deliberatively trying to prevent the other party’s supporters from being allowed to vote goes beyond the norms of a democratic government.
Republicans in Maryland may well complain about a General Assembly controlled by Democrats not taking their preferences into account, but that majority has not tried to prevent Republicans in the state from voting.
Add to that the reality that judges in Pennsylvania are elected and were consistently identified by their political party in the news stories about the voter ID law, and you have a recipe for the kind of shameful behavior that has occurred this year.
Voting is the most essential political right we have. The barriers to voting that were put in the way of African-Americans during the Jim Crow period are still a stain on this country’s reputation.
The dramatic turnabout after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act demonstrates that voting is truly a fundamental right. That we are still having battles about access to voting is a matter that should concern everyone who really believes in democracy.
Laslo Boyd writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His experience in public policy includes government, higher education and consulting. His email address is [email protected]