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Poll Dancing: Activists hoping to prevent passage of ID bill before election

"This is a law pushed by people who count votes ... a calculated move to swing elections."

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For many Pennsylvanians, acknowledges Paul O'Hanlon, showing a driver's license when they vote wouldn't be a big deal.

"A lot of able-bodied people in this state already have a driver's license and producing it probably wouldn't be a burden," says the staff attorney for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. "But for people living in nursing homes, or who are physically ill or people who just don't have the wherewithal to get an ID, they're going to suffer the greatest burden."

And under House Bill 934, which would require each voter to present a photo ID at the polls, they may have to shoulder it.

Several states — including Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas and South Carolina — have passed voter-ID bills over the past year. But the passage of Pennsylvania's bill could resonate well beyond the state's borders. The legislation asserts that the changes "shall apply to elections held after September 17, 2012" ... and Pennsylvania is considered a potentially key swing state in President Barack Obama's bid for re-election this November. 

"This is a law pushed by people who count votes," says O'Hanlon, who suspects the bill's Republican sponsors of trying to discourage racial minorities and other traditionally Democratic constituencies from voting. "This is a calculated move to swing elections."


Currently, Pennsylvanians must bring some form of identification — from a driver's license to a utility bill — to vote only if they are using a polling station for the first time. After that, poll workers can check identification by comparing the signature of voters on Election Day to the one on their voter-registration card. But often poll-workers have an additional advantage: "They know their neighbors," says Jeff Garis, field director for Pennsylvania Voice, a statewide coalition of advocacy groups.

Attempted deception has been rare to nonexistent. "You can count on one hand the number of times that cases have been filed in this state against people improperly voting," says Garis. "This is a solution without a problem."

The numbers vary on exactly how many cases of voter fraud the state has seen in the past decade. Democratic legislators and activists like Garis have repeatedly said it's around four. A December report from the National Republican Lawyers Association tallied voter-fraud cases from across the country and found 11 instances where individuals were either charged or convicted of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. None of those cases cited by the NRLA involved alleged polling-place fraud. 

Despite numbers that appear to be at the very most fewer than two dozen, supporters of the bill, like sponsor state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Cranberry), say the legislation is needed to combat voter fraud. They point to charges filed against the community-activist ACORN, whose paid signature-gatherers were accused of registering fictitious citizens to vote. Seven ACORN volunteers were charged in Allegheny County in 2009, in fact.

 "House Bill 934 is a commonsense safeguard that will only disenfranchise integrity-deficient individuals seeking to perpetuate fraud and corruption," Metcalfe said in a statement after the bill passed the House in June. (It is currently pending before the Senate's Appropriations Committee.) "Any elected official who opposes requiring valid photo ID at the polls needs to be asked if allowing for cheating at the ballot box is necessary for them to win."

More recently, conservative activist James O'Keefe has made headlines by staging voting-fraud attempts during the New Hampshire primary. In an effort to demonstrate the system's alleged susceptibility, O'Keefe dispatched 13 operatives to obtain ballots at various polling places; most of the operatives used the names of voters who had recently died but were still on the rolls. (One was turned away by a poll worker who'd known the deceased voter personally.) O'Keefe's team did not actually vote, though the state's attorney general is reportedly investigating possible charges.

Critics point out that the ACORN case involved merely registering imaginary voters — not an O'Keefe-like attempt to vote under a false name. And weighing against such isolated cases, they add, is the impact on those who do have a right to vote, but would be denied the chance to do so with new rules in place.

Tim Stevens, of the local Black Political Empowerment Project, says the law would deny the vote to the black working poor. Many young African Americans — "a lot of whom voted for our current president in the last election" — don't own cars, he says, and therefore don't have driver's licenses.

"This measure is going to discourage people to come out and vote, or prevent them from voting once they get to the polls," he warns.


Legislators have nodded toward those concerns. 

Before Christmas, a state Senate committee expanded the types of IDs that will be allowed to prove identity. These include college photo IDs for students and photo IDs supplied by nursing homes or care centers. More generally, the bill requires the state Department of Transportation to issue — at no cost — a photo ID for those who apply.

O'Hanlon calls those "false fixes put in place to make people less upset about the law." The college ID, for example, would not be available to 18-year-old high school students or young people not in college.

As for nursing-home IDs? "They don't exist," says O'Hanlon. "No home that we know of or work with issues photo IDs. Are they supposed to absorb this cost to solve a problem that doesn't exist?"

The real danger, opponents say, is the confusion spawned by a new requirement some voters may not discover until Election Day.

"If they pass this bill now, there will be no level of marketing to reach every citizen," Stevens says.

"How confusing do you think this is going to be if you've voted in the same place for 50 years and all of a sudden you're told you need to prove who you are?" asks Garis. 

Poll workers, meanwhile, would be in an unenviable position: Under the law, they can make no exceptions to the photo-ID requirement — even if the person has voted at the same location for decades. Poll workers who ignore the requirement could face criminal charges.

"If this election is as close as I and a lot of people expect it's going to be, then by enacting this law, you're finagling with the voting system," Stevens says. "And I think that's a crime."

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