Back in April, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele visited the editorial board of the Erie Times-News newspaper to speak with them about the new photo voter ID bill Governor Tom Corbett had just signed into law. The bill is supposed to fight or prevent voter fraud, but as with every other state that has passed voter ID laws, this fraud is mostly a boogeyman that seems to only haunt Republicans in their dreams (Check this Rolling Stone slideshow for an excellent ride through voter fraud myth debunkment).
Aichele’s Erie visit was part of a state tour to educate voters about what they’d need for compliance with law and for the ability to exercise their right to vote. One of the IDs acceptable for voting is a state employee photo identification card. However, the law also says that IDs must have a current expiration date for voter eligibility, and the state employee cards do not. Aichele seemed to overlook this paradox in her education drive.
“Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele showed her state photo ID, which is not acceptable for voting because it doesn’t have an expiration date,” wrote the editorial board after she showed hers to them. It must have been humiliating for the secretary who was promoting the new law to find that her own example didn’t hold muster. It’s bad enough mandating that voters have ID cards, but to add the additional restriction that the ID needs an expiration date makes it even more obtrusive. The editorial says that 10 percent of Pennsylvanians, or 88,000, do not have a valid photo ID—though that number is contested and is thought to be much larger.
I wonder what the Pennsylvanian Benjamin Franklin would have thought of this law. Back in his day, the requirement for voting was that a (white) man own property as opposed to ID (or is an identification card considered property?), which Franklin thought was foolish. In his tract “Flowers of Literature, Wit and Sentiment,” he tells the story of a man who owns a jackass and hence is entitled to vote. But the jackass dies. Meanwhile, even though the man has become more educated about government he can no longer vote because his property, the jackass, is gone. “Now gentlemen, pray inform me, in whom is the right of suffrage? In the man or in the jackass?” asked Franklin.
I won’t say that Aichele made a jackass out of her ID card when she showed it to the editorial board. But the lawmakers and the governor who made this law are allowing democracy to expire every time a voter ID card is required or rejected. Even in offering Pennsylvanians free voter ID cards, it’s still a measure that places the right to vote in a plastic card rather than in the citizen.
Acknowledging the burden this law places on voters who lack ID or the means and documents to easily get one, Aichele introduced a new initiative that allows voters who don’t have their birth certificate to submit certain information to the state’s health department for verifying voter eligibility and granting them ID. The program is only for Pennsylvania natives, so if you were born in another state, tough luck. Many older African-Americans migrated to Pennsylvania from the South, where many likely were born without the benefit of a hospital that kept their birth record.
Take the example of Henrietta Kay Dickerson, 75, of Pittsburgh, a black woman who was born in Louisiana. She came to Pennsylvania as an infant and grew up her whole life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the historical black neighborhood immortalized in the plays of August Wilson. In May last year her state ID expired. She went to the state’s department of transportation where she was refused a free voter ID card, even after she paid the $13.50 fee, according to her account in the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Advancement Project against the state, which says the law violates voting rights granted by the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The state’s new initiative with the health department doesn’t seem to address the fundamental problem with the law. The Philadelphia Inquirer calls the initiative a “pig in lipstick.” That paper’s editorial board wrote:
It doesn’t much matter that the state is loosening the guidelines for getting the proper papers, or that the state Department of Transportation is promising to process nondriver IDs in only 10 days, rather than the months-long wait seen in some cases. The fact remains that voter-ID rules target the fundamental rights of young, minority, and elderly residents, especially in urban areas like Philadelphia, where—surprise, surprise—Democrats expect to pull millions of votes for President Obama in the fall.
It “still is a case of misplaced priorities,” says Khari Mosley, a political strategist in Pittsburgh. “Considerable education efforts must continue due to further potential confusion and people will still need to be cajoled to the DMV.”
If you don’t know about Pennsylvania’s DMV—called PennDot—I can testify as someone who was born in the state, got my driver’s license there and lived there most of my life that those offices rank up there with prison in terms of the last places anyone wants to go. The hours-long waiting periods can often actually feel like jail. When the transportation department’s secretary Barry Schoch wrote in a newspaper that his offices were ready to receive Pennsylvanians needing ID, he got peppered with response letters that basically said, “Yeah, right.”
Donald Cooper visited a Penn DOT office and ” the workers didn’t know which ID they were making me,” he wrote in the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “I thought the voter ID was free, but I was charged $13.50. Can I send Mr. Schoch the bill?”
Someone must not mind the madness, though. The two-thirds of voters who support the voter ID law probably already have ID and have no worries about their ID expiring before the November election. Which means there may be about a third of the state who at least have questions about how this law will affect them and their fellow Pennsylvanians. It also means that the ACLU and the Advancement Project have a tough battle ahead. And when some of the most racist voters in America live in western Pennsylvania, there will be even less sympathy for voting rights.
The stakes are high for Pennsylvania, which is a perennial battleground state, and which has a long history of disenfranchising voters, particularly black students. Like the state employee IDs, many state college IDs have no expiration date. Some colleges are paying to add expiration date stickers to college IDs so they can comply. Of course, stickers can be manipulated, taken off, swapped off and corrupted. This would seem to invite the voter fraud that the voter ID law professes to solve. If that becomes the case, then who becomes the jackass?