Shocker: PA Judge Upholds Voter Disenfranchisement Law, Setting Up Chaos Like 2004 in Ohio

Election '16

Pennsylvania’s Democratic strongholds in 2012 are poised to follow in the ugly footsteps of Ohio in 2004, where tens of thousands of inner-city voters waited for hours and hours before casting ballots in the election that sent George W. Bush to the White House.

On Wednesday, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, issued a ruling upholding Act 18, the state’s new photo ID law affecting polling place voters. While voting rights groups will appeal to the state Supreme Court, the part of their case built on lessons from the past two presidential races—where administrative hurdles and snafus disenfranchised thousands in battleground states—was resoundly rejected by Simpson.

“Petitioners did not establish, however, that disenfrachisement was immediate or inevitable,” he wrote. “On the contrary, the more credible evidence on this issue was offered through Commonwealth witnesses. I was convinced that efforts by the Department of State, the Department of Health, PennDOT, and other Commonwealth agencies and interested groups will fully educate the public.”

Simpson said in a footnote that 1 percent of the state’s electorate, which would be 89,000 registered voters, or "somewhat more" lack required IDs. Regardless of whether that figure is correct, or a much larger initial estimate by the state that 575,000 registered voters lack the ID is more credible, the emerging reality on the ground in Democratic strongholds is not good.

How bad could it be? A Republican state senator who sponsored the law recently was caught on camera bragging about how the new voter ID requirements would help Romney win the state in November.

Should the ruling stand, and it might because the state Supreme Court is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, then voting this November in Pennsylvania’s Democratic-leaning cities will be more congested, delay-ridden and frustrating—according to testimony by the same officials that Simpson says will effectively implement the law.

During the trial, Jorge Santana, a deputy commissioner overseeing Philadelphia’s Board of Elections, testified that one-third of the city’s 1.1 million registered voters—mostly from low-income areas—did not have the required forms of IDs to get a ballot this fall. Under the state's absentee ballot law, voters must present a physician's note saying they are not capable of going to a poll.

Accomodating those voters and others on Election Day will be a tremendous and nerve-testing challenge, he said.

The city does not do extensive poll worker training—or even have a training requirement, Santana said, which means that many of the city’s 8,000 poll workers will be figuring out how the ID law works on the fly. The city also lacked funds for public education beyond free media coverage, he said, adding that no matter what publicity there is, many low-income voters will not have heard anything about the law until they turn up to vote.

Santana said that Philadelphia election officials were anticipating that every fifth or sixth voter would have to step out of line to fill out provisional ballots, which would involve assistance by poll workers including calling jammed election office switchboards to get and verify their registration information. In Pennsylvania, provisional ballots are not counted unless the voter returns within six days and presents missing information. Studies from 2008 suggest that almost never happens—voiding those ballots.

In 2008, Philadelphia issued 8,300 provisional ballots. Santana said the city was planning on issuing 200,000 provisional ballots in November. He also predicted longtime voters who lacked new ID also would end up arguing with polling place officials, prompting “disruptions at the polls and delays.”

This scenario echoes what happened in Ohio’s big cities in 2004’s presidential election—where a range of factors added up to election administrators failing to accommodate tens of thousands of would-be voters. Politically, these voting barriers dramatically lowered the ‘turnout’ figures in those urban wards, not because eligible voters did not want to vote, but because they were not accomodated.

Voting rights lawyers discussing the Pennsylvania ruling in a conference call on Wednesday focused on the legal aspects—saying the judge surprised everyone by using a low standard when faced with upholding voting rights. The court ignored the testimony from local election administrators like Santana, who noted that presidential elections always put the most stress on all the steps in the process.  

“One of the things that was frustrating to us was the fact that we did put on powerful evidence, from both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, about the effect on Election Day, and this opinion dismissed that as hypothetical,” said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. “So from a legal point of view, we haven’t analyzed how we will handle that.”

Clarke tried to put a brave face looking forward. Beyond the prospects at the Supreme Court, it is an open question if Act 18 will be challenged in federal court under the Voting Rights Act. The current case was based on the Pennsylvania Constitution.

“I would say this is a great example and a great opportunity to put out the call to all of the other citizens and advocates and lawyers in Pennsylvania, to make sure that every stop is pulled out… to make sure people are able to vote,” she said. “We’re concerned that no matter what people do, and no matter what people say, there still will be many, many, many people who don’t know about this law, and won’t be able to vote.

“That said, I think the only thing to be done is to try.”

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