Restrictive Voter ID Laws Halted in PA, but Voter Disenfranchisement Marches On

Today, Judge Robert Simpson ruled on the controversial voter ID laws in the state of Pennsylvania, ordering the state to delay implementation of the law until after the election season. Voter ID laws have been igniting debate in Pennsylvania as well as 11 other states, like Tennessee and Kansas. These laws purport to protect against voter fraud by requiring government-issued photo ID to be presented at the polling station before one can vote, which in and of itself isn’t a particularly controversial idea. But the fact that some states, like Pennsylvania, have rushed to put this legislation in place so soon before the election (especially since the turnaround on issuing photo IDs can often be long) is at best problematic and at worst suspicious.

Which is why although Judge Simpson originally upheld the law back in August, he was instructed by the state Supreme Court to investigate more closely, and determine whether “the state was doing enough to provide voters who lack the required photo IDs with alternative forms of identification.” When Simpson had this newest round of hearings, he ruled that “authorities had not done enough to ensure that potential voters had access to the new documents.”

To understand why voter ID laws are controversial, it helps to look at what they require of voters and who among the voting public is equipped to meet those requirements. According to the state’s literature on the law, photo ID must have an expiration date in the future, include a photo of its owner, and have a name that conforms to the voting register at your polling place. Forms that fit into this category are a US passport, a Pennsylvania driver’s license, a state municipal employee badge, or Pennsylvania college student ID.

Many citizens have these forms of ID already. But as much as 11% of the voting public doesn’t, and statistically, the people within that 11% are likely to be elderly, poor, or of color. If an elderly person no longer drives and their license has expired, they may not have a support system or access to transportation to get them to the DMV. If someone can’t afford a car, and doesn’t have the money for international travel, they don’t always have a reason to have a driver’s license, or a way to easily obtain one – the bus route doesn’t necessarily stop at the DMV, nor can they take a day off of work to go there. Puerto Rican voters, whose birth certificates may have been recently ruled invalid by the Puerto Rican government, may have a lot of difficulty obtaining a new photo ID. And while this seems to be a less-discussed angle, trans* people whose names on their ID don’t necessarily match the voter registry are unfairly disenfranchised by laws that require name and photo ID to access basic civil rights.

Again, as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has said, there isn’t anything inherently unconstitutional about voter ID laws – but the fact that so many of them were introduced so close to the election, with heavy Republican support and virtually no involvement from Democrats (along with the fact that fraud by individual voters is reportedly “irrational and extremely rare”), raises questions about voter disenfranchisement. And specifically voter disenfranchisement of the underprivileged; who are, coincidentally, the least likely to vote for hyperprivileged Romney. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s ruling doesn’t do anything to delay the implementation of similar laws in other states.

It also doesn’t provide a solution for non-legislative but still very real ways in which underprivileged and poor voters can easily become disenfranchised. For instance, some of the top swing states in the nation, like Michigan, also have the highest rates of home foreclosure. Aside from uprooting the lives of those foreclosed upon, foreclosure can also inhibit their right to vote, because voter registration systems are based on address of residence. And again, this issue tends to affect the poor, the unemployed, and people of color – groups that were unlikely to vote for Romney. In 2008, Republicans in Michigan were accused of a calculated “lose your home, lose your vote” plan aimed at making sure those who were foreclosed upon couldn’t vote.  Making the problem worse, some states, like Florida, have instituted rules that require one to re-register to vote if one changes counties. Registering to vote becomes more difficult and complicated as election day nears.

There are a variety of ways in which America doesn’t live up to its reputation of equal opportunity — equal access to education, to jobs, to healthcare, to respect; the list goes on. But perhaps one of the most frustrating things is that even in 2012, long after issues of suffrage and voting rights were supposedly settled, there’s still significant impediments to participating in the democracy that forms the foundation of our country — especially for those who have already lost or been denied a great deal. It’s important to make sure you’re voting yourself if you’re eligible, but also to think about how you might be able to help others access their right to the ballot — whether it’s a ride to the polling station or helping someone figure out who to call to update their address on the voter registration, it’s our responsibility as citizens not only to vote, but to make sure that the rest of our community can, too.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

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  1. anecdotes are not statistics but: my (educated, politically involved, registered to vote) parents live in PA and I asked if they had heard of all this nonsense and they were like “what ARE you talking about?!”

    just a SPECTACULAR job, PA legislators. glad it got at least temporarily stopped!

  2. My 90 year old grandmother almost couldn’t vote this year – or even fly to Florida to visit us. Her driver’s license had expired and she needed to get a Texas state ID. But she doesn’t have a birth certificate – she was born at home in 1921. Increasingly bureaucratic measures definitely target more vulnerable groups.

  3. All of these voter ID laws are pure voter suppression, their sole intent is to keep people from being able to vote.

    Rather than the mess of a system we have now, I wish we would move to a system where as soon as you turn 18 you’re automatically registered to vote. How to do that, I don’t exactly know, but perhaps it could be tied to social security numbers. But you shouldn’t have to go through all these hoops to practice your constitutional right to vote.

    • Do we have this in Canada? I don’t know…I think I got some sort of letter of letter in the mail for my first election. I remember it being pretty easy anyway.

  4. This is an interesting debate from an Australian perspective. Compulsory voting was implemented here in the 1930s, in an unsuccessful attempt to rig the vote, actually (the Labour party (centre-left) thought that getting blue collar workers to the polls would help them, but any effect on voting patterns was extremely minimal). The effect is that politicians have to appeal to all sectors of society and that the country has had voter turnouts of over 90% for 90 years now. Any attempts to increase barriers to people voting would likely be void.

    I’ve debated the concept of compulsory voting many times, and to me it seems the flip side of this issue. If it is wrong for the state to place hurdles in the way of people voting, does that make it right for the state to fine people for not voting?

    • Hey Annie/other Aussies reading this,
      Is there an option to vote for no one when you go to the voting booth in Australia? Like a dissenting vote or an abstaining vote when you don’t support any of the choices? Or is it required to vote for a candidate?

      • Of course. It would be impossible to restrict such a requirement because the ballots are all anonymous. It’s called donkey voting and includes scrawling “death to the man” across all the candidates names or (unfortunately) making a mistake which invalidates your vote.

        The party system here is quite different to the states — It’s at once more difficult for MPs or senators to cross the floor and vote against their party and more common for independent candidates or minor parties to run. At the last federal election in 2010, protest voting for the Greens party was a massive factor in the outcome.

        In my view, it’s not sending much of a message to abstain from voting or to donkey vote — It’s so easily mistaken for not caring about the issues, which is a clear indication to politicians that they do not need to appeal for your vote next election.

  5. It’s always interesting to me to read these articles about voter ID laws in the US. My first instinct is to wonder why it’s such a big deal (here in The Netherlands we’ve had to show ID when voting since 2009, but in 2010 they changed it to allow for it to be expired by max 5 years). I guess our situation is a lot different though…

    There’s no voter registration because we have a national resident register. When you move, that’s who you notify of your change of address (through your own municipality). Your driver’s license doesn’t need to be renewed when you move, because there’s no address on it. Every Dutch resident 18 and over automatically gets a voting card in the mail for local, regional & national elections.

    Also, there’s no law that says you have to *have* or *carry* ID, as far as I know. However, a law was enacted in 2005 that says anyone 14 and over has to be able to *show* one upon request. This doesn’t mean that any random person can just ask for your ID, or that the police can ask you for ID when you’re just innocently walking down the street. It does mean that a police officer can ask you for it *under certain circumstances*, or your bank when you want to open an account, or the ticket inspector when you’re riding public transport without a ticket and they issue you a fine, or your employer when you start a new job. This means that it’s not very common to not own any form of photo ID (national ID card, or a passport. Driver’s licenses are valid ID in most but not all situations.)

    This system might sound police state-y, and obviously there’s a lot of valid arguments against it. There are privacy concerns, and there’s the possibility of abuse (before ID laws were expanded in 2005 they were only partially implemented in 1994, after having been absent since World War 2 when the Germans implemented them with the help of our excellent resident registry.) On a personal level though, I’ve never experienced anything shady. And to stay on topic, it certainly makes voting a lot easier…

    • If people are usually carrying IDs because they have to show them for different reasons, I think that would be different. Part of the issue here is that a lot of people would have no reason to have a current ID (for example, senior citizens who haven’t driven or traveled outside the U.S. in several years, so their driver’s license and passport are probably expired) and the time window in which they have to get one is too small to allow them to vote.

      • Yeah, I get that. :) It’s why I said that wondering why it’s such a big deal would be my first instinct, but when you take into consideration the completely different circumstances here and in the US it becomes much clearer. I don’t know if there was really a point to my whole loooong comment aside from illustrating that difference… I do agree that in a sitation where not everyone has a current ID, voter ID laws become a lot more problematic.

        Either way, I thought the article was interesting, and it’s taught me things about my own country too (had to do a little research because I didn’t know about the specifics of the law and when it was enacted and stuff). So thanks for educating me, autostraddle!

        • Yeah, I mean, I was thinking: I use my ID a lot, even though I don’t drive, but I’m also 22 and I look like I’m 16 and so I need it to buy liquor. And I’m a student, and I feel like there are a lot of things when you’re a student that require a photo ID.

          But if you’re not visibly under 30 (which is generally the standard in the U.S. for when to ID someone for liquor/cigarettes) AND a driver AND a student there isn’t really much reason you would need a photo ID for things, which is also the reason a lot of poor people are disenfranchised by this law.

  6. Well, this may still be an issue but at least this is a step in the right direction. PA’s law always seemed like the scariest to me because a) I think it was the most restrictive and b) the Republican legislators more or less admitted that the law was designed to help Romney win PA.

  7. I don’t really agree that any of that is really my responsibility, personally, I’m sorry, I’m probably wrong, but that’s just how I feel, and I’m not saying others should feel the way I do. Like, giving someone a ride somewhere, I hate driving, personally, it’s really stressful to me, but again, that’s just me, and I try to do it as little as necessary. Of course, I don’t think it’s good to make laws to stop people from voting if they want to vote, but I’m not really into politics or voting or debating or any of that stuff personally, but I don’t think it’s bad because everyone has different stuff they like of course, and I don’t think others should be interested in stuff I like just because I do, and that’s probably wrong in some way ir another, but it’s justvthe way I feel personally.

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