The Deep, Dark Mysteries Of Pennsylvania’s Voter ID

Source: Abby Rapoport / The American Prospect

Sometimes fearing the unknown isn’t such a bad idea. Like, for instance, when they’re serving “mystery meat” in the cafeteria. Or, on a slightly bigger scale, when your state is considering a new law that could disfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.

Pennsylvania legislators had no such healthy sense of fear when it came to passing the nation’s most restrictive voter ID law just a little over four months ago—practically yesterday, considering the ramifications of such a huge change to election procedures. But when the bill was being debated, lawmakers and state officials supporting the bill insisted it would be a breeze to ensure that no one was disenfranchised; everybody who wanted to vote would still be able to vote. “This is going to be an additional responsibility,”said Daryl Metcalf, the Republican state representative who sponsored the bill, but “one that is not burdensome in any way.” Besides, Republican Governor Tom Corbett’s office said that only 1 percent of Pennsylvanians lacked a valid ID. Even for that 1 percent, Corbett said, “This is no barrier to voting. You have to have a photo ID to go anywhere.” For the scant few presumed to be lacking IDs, the state would provide one free of charge. Easy peasy.

But now, with only three months until Election Day, it’s abundantly clear that things are going to be a lot more complicated. The number of voters lacking the required ID is considerably higher than state officials guessed. The plan for giving out free, new IDs is a complete mess. At best, it looks like the way Pennsylvania enforces the law, which deals with a central right of citizenship, will be a rushed affair. At worst, it will leave thousands, if not hundreds of thousands without a chance to cast a ballot.

While the state defends the law in court, officials are simultaneously scrambling to come up with a public education campaign and make new identification cards widely available. Court proceedings started last week in a lawsuit brought by voting rights groups. Testimony on Friday highlighted just how much is left to do to implement the law—and just how much remains unknown. The stakes are high, as Pennsylvania is a swing state in one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent memory.

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