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Ten Takeaways From Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Trial | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

Ten Takeaways From Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Trial

Update, August 15, 2012: Judge Robert Simpson has refused to grant an injunction to halt implementation of Pennsylvania's voter ID law. Opponents will appeal the decision. We'll have more on the ruling soon, but in the mean time, here are Ari Berman's takeaways from the trial.

The two-week trial challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s voter ID law ended today. Here’s what we learned from the proceedings. Suffice to say, Pennsylvania Republicans didn’t come out looking very good.

1. A lot of voters don’t have valid voter ID. University of Washington political scientist Matt Barreto, a witness for the plaintiffs (the suit was brought by the ACLU, the Advancement Project and other voting rights groups), found more than 1 million registered voters in Pennsylvania—12.8 percent of the electorate—don’t have sufficient voter ID. Moreover,379,000 registered voters don’t have the underlying documents, such as a birth certificate, needed to obtain the right ID; 174,000 of them voted in 2008.

2. The state doesn’t know its own law very well. During the debate over the law in the state legislature, Secretary of the Commonwealth Carole Aichele repeatedly stated that 99 percent of Pennsylvania voters had the right ID. A subsequent study by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation found that 758,000 registered voters, 9.2 percent of the electorate, lacked a state-issued PennDot ID. During the trial, Pennsylvania State Department official Rebecca Oyler testified that she calculated the “99 percent have ID” figure in less than twenty-four hours while lacking sufficient data from the department of transportation. When pressed on the specifics of the law and the number of people who lack voter ID, Aichele responded: “I don’t know what the law says.”

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett was similarly clueless when asked what forms of ID besides state-issued ID are valid for voting purposes. “The other forms of ID can be student ID.” Corbett said. “We’ve been working with the nursing homes to get people new ID. It can be military ID. There’s two or three other forms—right now, off the top of my head, I don’t have it here in front of me.”

3. The state is unprepared to implement the law. Pennsylvania has allocated funds for only 75,000 “free” voter ID cards, even though the department of transportation found that ten times as many voters may lack valid ID. Nor is the state equipped to handle all of the people who will need to get ID. “There were 71 PennDot offices, but 13 of them were only open one day a week,” Slate’s Dave Weigel noted. “Nine Pennsylvania counties have no PennDot office at all.” Added the Philadelphia Inquirer: “In recent visits to the Department of Transportation’s offices, the witnesses said, they found long lines, short hours, and misinformed clerks, which made obtaining voter identification cumbersome, and in some cases impossible, for those who don’t have supporting documentation.”

4. There is no voter fraud in Pennsylvania or nationally. At the beginning of the trial, the state offered this remarkable admission in a court filing: “There have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states.” Essentially, the state conceded that its central rationale for the voter ID law—stopping “voter fraud”—turned out to be moot.

5. The law will help Republicans. GOP House Leader Mike Turzai was on to something when he said that voter law ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Barreto testified that if the voter ID law had been on the books in 2008, Obama would’ve lost Pennsylvania by 200,000 votes, rather than winning by 621,000 votes.

6. The law is discriminatory. According to the department of transportation, 9.2 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania lack state-issued voter ID, but the number is 18 percent in Philadelphia, which is 44 percent African-American. A new study based on the state’s data finds that voters in predominately black precincts in Philadelphia are 85 percent more likely than voters in predominately white precincts to lack state-issued ID. Voters in Hispanics and Asians neighborhoods are also twice as likely to lack IDs relative to white voters.

7. Voters don’t know about the law. According to Barreto, 86 percent of eligible voters in Pennsylvania posses a valid voter ID but 99 percent of registered voters believe they have the right ID. Only a third of registered voters are aware of the law (though maybe that’s changed as a result of the trial).“When will those people learn that their ID is not valid?” writes the Pennsylvania ACLU. “Most likely, when they show up to vote.”

8. Pennsylvania believes voting is a privilege, not a right. Said Pennsylvania Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley: “To be sure, voters do share some responsibility to obtain an ID and to get themselves to the polls. The law does not require the commonwealth to eliminate all inconveniences.” In other words, if the state law disenfranchises voters, it’s the voters’ fault.

9. The legal battle isn’t over. Judge Robert Simpson has promised a ruling the week of August 13, but also said, “Take heart, I’m not the last level in this matter.” His decision is expected to be appealed to the state supreme court, which is currently split 3-3 between Democratic and Republican judges. If they deadlock, Simpson has the final word (unless the case goes to the Supreme Court).

10. After observing the trial, many legal observers believe Simpson will issue an injunction against the voter ID law, as occurred with Wisconsin’s voter ID law. “The more I hear about the trial, the more convinced I am that a fair-minded judge (which this trial judge certainly appears to be) would be likely to issue a preliminary injunction barring the use of the i.d. requirement in the November election,” wrote UC-Irvine law professor Rick Hasen. Added Penda Hair of the Advancement Project: “We think this should be a slam dunk victory for plaintiffs which should result in a preliminary injunction.”

For more on voting rights and the 2012 election, check out our blog, Voting Rights Watch 2012.

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