Pennsylvania voter ID law: Key swing states tinker with Election 2012 rules

A Pennsylvania judge refused to block a state voter ID law Wednesday, but Pennsylvania is only one of the key swing states squabbling over rules for Election 2012. 

John C. Whitehead/The Patriot-News/AP/File
The NAACP holds a voter ID rally in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol last month.

The ruling by a Pennsylvania judge Wednesday to allow a controversial voter identification law to go into effect puts a sharp focus on hyperpartisan voting rights battles heating up in key battleground states ahead of what could be a tight November election.

Pennsylvania Republicans passed a law earlier this year on a straight party-line vote that requires voters to produce a state-issued identification. Civil-liberties groups sued the state, claiming the law would disenfranchise minorities who would have difficulty producing documents like birth certificates to secure a state ID. But a Monitor/TIPP poll shows public opinion generally supports such laws, and Pennsylvania Republicans have refused to back down, contending that voter fraud constitutes the bigger threat to the integrity of the election system.

Judge Robert Simpson of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania did not rule on the merits of the case, and he refused to issue an injunction. The American Civil Liberties Union and other litigants vow to ask the state Supreme Court to overturn the decision before November.

The partisan squabble over stricter voting laws is fueled by the stakes in November, where Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio – three states that could have a significant influence on who wins the presidential race – are tinkering with who can vote and when. 

“Very small things could turn this election," says Philip Meyer, a polling expert at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. "Even if it’s just a fraction of 1 percent who are affected by a voter ID law, that could be enough to change the outcome. There’s no such thing as trivial in a close election.”

Republican-controlled statehouses have passed 10 new voter ID laws ahead of Election 2012. In former Confederate states including South Carolina and Texas, the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has challenged new voter ID laws under the Civil Rights Act, with Attorney General Eric Holder likening them to Jim Crow-era poll taxes that kept blacks out of voting booths.  

Pennsylvania's new law is part of this trend.

In Wisconsin, the battle is different. The state secretary of state's office, headed by a Democrat, recently released a memo warning that “boisterous” election observers may be removed by police. Conservative activists read the memo as a preemptive attempt to silence political opposition.

In Ohio, meanwhile, the secretary of state, a Republican, has allowed expanded early-voting hours in some conservative counties but not in some liberal ones. The state says the more liberal counties can’t afford to keep the polls open for the extra hours, but critics say it’s a blatant attempt by the GOP to squelch poorer minority voters in those districts. Either way, all Ohioans will have 30 days of early weekday voting from at least 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Also in Ohio, the Obama administration is trying to overturn a 2011 state law that changed the last day of early voting from the Monday before an election to the previous Friday – for everyone except military personnel. The Obama administration calls the exemption for military personnel – who trend conservative – unequal treatment and wants early voting through Monday reopened for all Ohioans. 

On the broader issue of voter fraud versus disenfranchisement, data offer support for both sides.

Some 2,000 alleged voter-fraud cases yielded only 10 actual voting-booth impersonations in the past 12 years, according to a report by News 21, a Carnegie-Knight investigative-reporting program at Arizona State University. But conservatives note that, after Georgia passed a voter ID law in 2007, the percentage of minority voters participating in elections increased in 2008 and 2010.

A new Monitor/TIPP poll shows that 77 percent of registered voters support voter ID laws. Some 58 percent disagree with the idea that such laws disenfranchise minority voters.

Moreover, 66 percent of black respondents said IDs should be required at the polls – despite the fact that both blacks and Hispanics were evenly split on whether such laws disenfranchise minorities.

Another report suggests that “racial resentment” plays a part in views about voter ID laws. A University of Delaware poll found that 34 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “African-Americans bring up race only when they need to make an excuse for their failure.” These people were more likely to support voter ID laws, David Wilson, who conducted that poll, told News 21 reporters.

Support for voter ID laws to some extent ties into the fact that Americans in the post-9/11 era are used to producing a state ID for many basic transactions, including air travel and renting a car. Nevertheless, some researchers question polling on voter ID laws more broadly, suggesting that it’s an issue with complexities that many Americans haven’t thought through.

“The problem with polling is you get casual responses to a casual impression," says UNC's Professor Meyer. "You assume members of the public are knowledgeable when, in fact, there’s a lot of variation in how much they know or how much they’ve thought about the issue.”

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