On Nov. 6, registered voters throughout Pennsylvania will cast their ballots amid the confusion spawned by recent court decisions on the state’s voter identification law, which requires state-approved picture identification to vote.
In August, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson upheld the law after it was challenged by civil right groups on the grounds that it would disenfranchise voters in the presidential election. Two months later, on Oct. 2, Simpson placed the law on hold after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court asked him to evaluate the state’s ability to ensure access to proper documentation before Nov. 6.
“It is not mandatory to have a picture identification in order to vote,” said law professor David Adamany, a university chancellor and former president. “Although poll workers have been told to ask people for picture identification, they can’t require it.”
“The injunction placed on the voter ID law will ensure the integrity of the the electoral process. No one will be denied their legal right to vote. Every registered voter who wishes to vote can now do so,” Dylan Morpurgo, president of Temple College Democrats, said.
Erik Jacobs, chairman of Temple Univeristy College Republicans, said the student organization vehemently opposes the injuction.
“Having an ID is a necessary part of daily life,” Jacobs said. “ Any legitimate vote canceled out by an illegitimate vote is voter suppression.”
Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele said in a conference call last week that election officials have been instructed to ask for photo ID so that voters begin the process of acquiring acceptable forms of identification for future elections.
“Once the court [issued the injunction on the law] the number of photo IDs requested have dropped off a cliff,” Aichele said. “We had about 10,000 IDs issued through PennDOT, and about 2,500 Department of State ID cards.”
Aichele said there were virtually no requests following the injunction.
The voter ID law was signed by Gov. Tom Corbett on March 14 and amended the election code to require voters to provide proper photo identification before casting their ballot.
Adamany said poll workers have received poor guidance from the Pennsylvania Secretary of State’s Office, which may result in voters being turned away because of misconceptions about the law. He recommended Temple students to carry either a driver’s license or an Owl Card when voting in order to avoid any hassle from election officials.
“Either one should be sufficient even for poll workers who have been given wrong instructions,” Adamany said. “If a student who has such identification is turned away, he or she should immediately notify the chief elections officer in their place of voting.”
Redesigned Owl Cards issued earlier this year comply with the voter ID law, which requires all forms of proper photo identification to have an expiration date in order to vote.
Aichele said all first-time voters are required by law to show proof of identification at the polling place. A student ID, a driver’s license or a utility bill will meet the requirement, she said.
Robin Kolodny, political science professor, said there are other precautions students must take if they want their vote to count.
“First, no one can deny you the right to vote if you [are registered],” Kolodny said. “Second, you have to recall the address you registered under to make sure you go to the right polling place.”
Kolodny also stressed the importance of voting on the machine rather than using a provisional or absentee ballot.
“It is vastly preferable in Pennsylvania to vote on the machine,” Kolodny said. “Provisional ballots are treated much like absentee ballots, they often do not get tallied at all.”
Aside from the non-implementation of the voter ID law, there is another issue that might create a muddle on Election Day.
Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit government watchdog group based in Philadelphia, said he is concerned about a backlog in new voter registrations. The deadline for registering was Oct. 9.
“Theoretically, the city was supposed to have processed all those applications by Oct. 26,” Stalberg said. “As of [Oct. 24] there were still 28,000 new registrations that had not been processed in the city of Philadelphia.”
Stalberg said it is likely that some people who applied on time will either not get registered or will not know that they are registered.
“All we know is that if you’re registered before the deadline, you should have been processed by now,” Stalberg said. “As far as we can tell, there is not a good excuse for the situation.”
For Kolodny there is another step to be taken in order to enhance the process at the polling places.
“Everybody’s voting experience will be better if there is more vigilance,” Kolodny said. “Democrats and Republicans are entitled to have somebody there to watch what is going on and report any problem to the city.”
The debate over safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process will continue beyond the presidential election. In Pennsylvania, voters will again argue for and against the voter ID law and the proficiency of election officials as the 2013 primaries come closer.
“Changes have to be implemented in a rational way, in which everybody knows the rules and in which everybody has the time to apply them,” Stalberg said.
Adamany said the ID law will be subject to further legal challenges. Stalberg and Kolodny said they believe the law will stand and that voters will have to show proper identification by the time of the next Pennsylvania primary.
Carson Whitelemons, a researcher for the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit policy institute based in New York, said the injunction on the law is not a guarantee against limited access to the polls.
As of July, there were 758,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania and 186,830 in Philadelphia lacked state-approved identification, she said.
“Urban areas pose their own problems because people living in densely populated areas are actually less likely to have the state IDs required to vote,” Whitelemons said.
In comparison to Pennsylvania, non-battleground states have stricter voter ID laws in place. According to an October report issued by the Brennan Center for Justice, Indiana, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee have “no photo ID, no vote” laws that are in effect for the general election.
“More than 1 million eligible voters in states that recently passed voter ID laws fall below the federal poverty line and live more than 10 miles from the nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week,” Whitelemons said.
Although the national discussion has been largely focused on the voter ID laws’ impact on the presidential election, Jacobs and Stalberg deemed local elections to pose bigger challenges.
“In Philadelphia alone, there have been many cases of overvoting, illegal voting and illicit voting as recently as our primary and mayoral elections,” Jacobs said.
“Where elections in Philadelphia get nasty, when people try to cheat, are really on local elections where there is something very tangible at stake,” Stalberg said. “If your candidate wins he can get you a job or a scholarship. The president won’t.”
Laura Ordonez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.