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Pennsylvania's New Voting Law Suppresses Democracy

Hundreds of thousands seasoned Pennsylvanian voters may find themselves out of luck at the ballot this election, thanks to a controversial state law that’s considered one of the most stringent in the country. The new law, which requires eligible...

by ALEC LIU
Jul 26 2012, 2:30pm

Hundreds of thousands seasoned Pennsylvanian voters may find themselves out of luck at the ballot this election, thanks to a controversial state law that’s considered one of the most stringent in the country.

The new law, which requires eligible voters to have a state-approved form of identification issued by PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, means that as many as 43 percent of Philly voters — maybe more — won't have the necessary form of I.D. to cast their ballot. Across the state, this means that 1,636,168 registered voters, about 20 percent of Pennsylvania, don't have valid I.D.s, according to a report from City Paper. Philly alone accounts for 437,237 that are potentially ineligible, or nearly half of the city's voters.

"This doesn't disenfranchise anybody," said state representative Daryl Metcalfe, who is a Republican. "And I think it should be insulting to any American to say that you might be disenfranchised because you don't have the ability to get a photo I.D."

But vocal critics have called the recent legislation a law in search of a crime. And the requirements for approval are strict. Take for instance the case of Wilola Lee. As reported by PBS, Lee has participated in every election since the 70s but will be ineligible this November. She has numerous forms of identification, including her social security card, but is unable to acquire the necessary PennDOT I.D. because she has no birth certificate, which was destroyed in a fire.

"I have been trying to get my birth certificate for the past 10 years, over 10 years," she told PBS, but to no avail. "So I did send to Georgia, where I was born at, in order to obtain a birth certificate. But they sent me a delayed birth certificate without a seal on it." This type of records snafu is a big part of the problem, explain critics as the election looms.

Though lawmakers will insist on the merit of such legislation in the quest to stamp out fraud or irregularities, the state has stipulated that there have been no documented cases of fraud in Pennsylvania. And those who suddenly find themselves in the lurch have no easy way of regaining their voting rights. "There's no plan for getting hundreds of thousands of people the proper I.D.," asserts local attorney David Gersch of the D.C. firm Arnold & Porter, who represents Wilola Lee and other plaintiffs. "They can say it's available, but they have no plan for actually accomplishing that."

The number of eligible citizens unable to vote comes into stark contrasts with the estimates state representatives put forward when the bill was on the line. The state initially claimed that one percent of its citizens would be affected, a number they have yet to verify with evidence and a number that quickly skyrocketed first to 9 percent ineligible and later 18.

That this is going down right before a major election has only fueled the partisan conspiracies. Thirty-three states have laws requiring I.D. for voting but of these, only five including Pennsylvania, have strict photo I.D. requirements. The laws in allll of these five states — the others being Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee, and Georgia — were Republican-led initiatives. Opponents of the legislation see it as a clear move to suppress democracy, in a state that could be a gamechanger in the upcoming election.

As such, the law is coming under increasing scrutiny. The state Commenwealth Court has begun hearings on a lawsuit brought by the Pennsylvania ACLU and other civil rights groups, which allege the law violates citizens' constitutional right to vote. The U.S. Attorney General has also gotten involved, announcing that it was investigating to see if the law violated the federal Voting Rights Act. Of particular interest is where the initial one percent number (of eligible voters affected) came from.

State officials maintain there is no problem. "We think we’re up to the task, and we’re aiming to make sure that all 8.2 [million] registered voters in Pennsylvania have photo I.D.," said Carol Aichele, secretary of the commonwealth and a spokesperson for the law. Still, if things remain unchanged, hundreds of thousands of eligible voters won't be able to have their say come election day.

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