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The Weakening Case for Voter ID in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has been trying for almost two years now to download a voter ID law Republican legislators passed into something workable on the ground. They’ve failed at every turn because grassroots organizers have consistently exposed the burdens the law imposes on voters, which courts have taken seriously, and because the state has yet to find a way to administer the law without disenfranchisement being a certified outcome. Now the state wants the court to show it how to implement it legally.

But ever since a ruling from the initial state judge upholding the law, Gov. Tom Corbett’s lawyers have failed to convince judges in three consecutive appeals that a legal solution is possible. The last judge to rule on the law, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley, decided it was too onerous to be applied to something as sacred as the right to vote. That ruling came just a few weeks ago, after the first full-trial hearing on the matter (the previous cases were partial hearings to temporarily stop the law).

State officials modified the law at least a half-dozen times throughout all of the trials, including creating a photo ID card issued by the Department of State for voting purposes that is free for those holding specific citizenship documents. But that card has failed to serve its purpose. In the roughly 18 months it’s been available, just over 17,000 cards have been issued. Meanwhile, experts testified that somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 Pennsylvanians lack the ID necessary to vote.

In his ruling, Judge McGinley said, “Like a house of cards, everything rises and falls upon the legitimacy of the [Department of State] ID,” but that ID “is an unauthorized agency creation, and difficult to obtain.”

Corbett's general counsel, James Schultz took mighty exception to that “house of cards” label, and clung to it throughout his 39-page post-trial brief asking the judge to reconsider his ruling. Corbett hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll appeal, but Schultz’s brief sounds like it’s likely they will if Judge McGinley doesn’t change his mind. Meanwhile, Corbett has spent over $1 million of taxpayer dollars trying to defend this law. Numerous political outlets call him one of the nation’s more vulnerable governors in this year’s elections, if not the most vulnerable alone. If Corbett appeals, it’s either because he thinks voter ID will help him get re-elected (and his GOP colleagues do, in fact, think this) or it’ll be his parting shot to the electorate before they dump him.

But the current brief asking McGinley to change his verdict exhibits some serious blindspots from state officials, especially along racial lines. Schultz wrote in the brief that if the voter ID law “is to be struck down based on the harm it will cause to qualified electors, the decision should be grounded on evidence showing harm to actual people – not arguments made by lawyers designed to make it sound like some people out there might be hurt by the law’s application.”

I don’t know where Schultz was sitting throughout the multi-part trial, but there were literally dozens of real, living, breathing, “actual” people who testified about how they were unable to get IDs for a whole cornucopia of reasons. I sat through some of the initial trial, and also the appeal to the state supreme court, and I personally listened to witness after witness explain how they were being shafted by state DMV workers. I wrote about some of them here. These people literally testified with their lives.

Meanwhile, expert pollsters Matt Barreto and Gabriel Sanchez from Latino Decisions conducted extensive research in locating the names of hundreds of thousands of voters who’d be harmed by the law. Not to mention the testimony of statistical expert Bernard Siskind, who testified that racial disparities existed among those who lacked ID, “almost beyond a shadow of a doubt.” Color of Change also found a litany of other burdens on people of color and low income.

If the state is disregarding all of this then they are reinforcing the idea that certain people simply do not exist in their eyes, and most of those happen to be people of color. This is also how we might conclude that racism is so baked into this law that it might be impossible to implement without racial disenfranchisement becoming a factor. 

Of course the state is pushing for voter ID to happen even under the complete absence of any evidence showing that the thing it’s supposed to protect us from—voter impersonation fraud—is even a problem. This is a vision problem. Corbett and his legal staff can see imaginary people doing hypothetical things like voting while dead, but can’t see the real life people in front of their face explaining how the law has complicated their lives and compromised their participation in democracy.