Pennsylvania voters may find themselves pulling out their wallets and scrounging through their purses for their driver’s licenses in upcoming elections if a recent bill makes it through the State Senate. House Bill 934 (the Pennsylvania Voter Identification Protection Act), sponsored by Republican State Representative Daryl Metcalfe, would require every voter to provide photo identification before voting. It passed the House just last June, and will soon make it to the floor of the Senate. As in many similar efforts across the country, the effort is largely Republican-led; not a single Democrat Representative in Pennsylvania voted for it.
This is Pennsylvania’s second effort at a voter identification bill. The first, which passed in the legislature in 2006, was vetoed by then-Governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat. But on an issue that tends to split down party lines, the effort this timestands a good chance. The Senate has a Republican majority of 29-20, and the governor is a Republican. Moreover, the bill includes elements, most notably providing free photo identification, that the Supreme Court cited last March when it decided (6-1) to uphold a similar Georgia statute. In short, if the bill passes, it will be there to stay unless a future legislature repeals it.
Proponents of the bill highlight voter fraud as a primary concern, saying it effectively undoes ballots of properly registered voters. Very few voting fraud cases aretried in Pennsylvania, and Secretary of State Carol Aichele has never witnessed any fraud since she started working at polls in 1981. However, she is still concerned about it. She and Metcalfe both link their concern to voter registrations submitted with the help of ACORN activists in Pennsylvania. Several ACORN workers face charges for voter registration fraud. In an opinion piece for Allentown-based newspaper The Morning Call, Rep. Metcalfe highlighted thousands of suspect voter registrations facilitated by ACORN.
Opponents of the measure, however, believe that it will simply make it more difficult for those already disadvantaged such as minorities, the elderly, and people with disabilities. A number of groups in Pennsylvania have voiced their concerns that additional barriers to voting will essentially disenfranchise some voters. Studies have shown that “stricter
voter-ID rules also disproportionately reduce the turnout of the least educated and those with lowest incomes.” Aichele has stated that 99% of registered voters already possess the necessary identification. In spite of this claim, registering new voters in these historically disadvantaged groups may be more difficult with additional requirements. Pennsylvania may offer free identification cards, but socio-economic status may impact the ability to take advantage of it.
However legitimate the concerns of under-representation of these groups, however, the bill at issue will have no impact on first-time registrants. Secretary Aichele’s claim is most likely correct simply because Pennsylvania already requires that all first time voters present photo identification when they cast a ballot, whether in person or absentee. Any discouragement to voting for first-timers, especially those in populations less likely to vote, is already in the system. Bill 934 simply expands the requirement to all voters who have had to satisfy it at least once before.
Another more easily quantifiable concern is cost. For those who do not believe voter fraud is a significant problem in Pennsylvania, it simply does not make sense to spend the money on providing free identification. State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn suggested that implementation of the bill may cost up to “$11 million to taxpayers.” On the other hand, if the bill went through without a provision for free voter identification, it might be susceptible to legal action. And if poll workers have to check IDs, voting could take more time or require more works. The bill cannot work without these costs, but the numbers are hard to stomach in a lean economy.
The measure could also involve significant costs of time and manpower at the polls. Doug Hill of the Pennsylvania County Commissioner’s Association suggested that the requirements would slow down the entire process, which could also affect voter access. Those without identification would cast provisional ballots and have to provide identification within six days. Hill believes that the registration process and first-time voting provision is sufficient. The bill will simply lengthen wait times unnecessarily, and failure to provide identification for provisional ballots could result in many being discarded.
The costs do not seem to concern supporters of the bill. They view it as a protection of the voting power of their citizens even though the fraud which inspired the bill was in new registrations which were already under an ID requirement. Regardless of disagreements, the bill will probably pass in the next few months. Pennsylvania will soon learn whether the benefits outweigh the costs and if providing free identification will help those most likely to be discouraged by the requirement to vote.
Nadja Wolfe is a first-year student at William & Mary Law School.