Fixing Pennsylvania's Elections

Celebrating Pennsylvania’s recent passage of a restrictive piece of voter ID legislation, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R) stated, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done." This statement, shocking only for its honesty, reveals what many voting rights organizations have been saying for years: Changing the rules relating to voting is a kind of power grab, a partisan effort to change outcomes. In the words of Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach (D), “This was always about suppressing votes of people who vote the wrong way.”

For elected officials to change the rules of our political system in this manner is frighteningly anti-democratic. These new requirements disproportionately burden poor, elderly, and minority voters, and based on data from the Pennsylvania Department of State, as many as 9.2 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters are now potentially ineligible to vote in this November’s presidential elections because they lack the appropriate state-issued photo identification cards. As Steve Benan at The Maddow Blog observed, despite President Obama’s current lead in the polls, this degree of voter suppression might be enough to change the outcome of the 2012 election. If the legal challenge to the law fails, Pennsylvania legislators might very well have hand-picked the winner of the state’s electoral votes.

Unfortunately, restrictive voter ID laws are only one way in which states like Pennsylvania have fallen short in protecting their residents’ right to vote. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), a federal law enacted to ensure that low-income residents receive an opportunity to register to vote, mandates that all public assistance agencies offer voter registration services.

Pennsylvania does not appear to be meeting the federal standards outlined by the NVRA. Based on Pennsylvania’s own submissions to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the number of voter registration applications submitted at Pennsylvania public assistance offices has decreased by a staggering 93 percent in recent years, from 59,462 in 1995-1996 to just 4,179 in 2009-2010. These declines in performance took place even as Pennsylvania’s population grew and the number of claimants for public benefits skyrocketed.

The Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP) and ACTION United, represented by Demos, Project Vote, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, filed a lawsuit yesterday alleging that Pennsylvania has systematically failed to comply with the NVRA. By coming back into compliance, Pennsylvania agencies could go a long way toward securing the voting rights of those same low income populations that are most at risk of being disenfranchised by restrictive voter ID laws.

It has been a depressing turn in our national politics that the composition of the electorate has become a tool for officials seeking to sway elections. The individual right to vote is the cornerstone of a responsive democratic system, and it is essential that those we put in office are committed to keeping that system open to all qualified voters.

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