Some say plan to issue Pennsylvania voter IDs flawed
An Allegheny County plan to issue voter identification through a community college and nursing homes may multiply in patches of Western and Eastern Pennsylvania, though Philadelphia has written off the idea as potentially flawed, a city official said Monday.
“I don’t think our law department is in a position to say it’s legal or not legal,” said Brian Abernathy, chief of staff for Philadelphia Managing Director Richard Negrin. He said the city will promote “the surest form of action” and encourage voters to obtain photo ID through the state Department of Transportation.
His remarks were made four days after Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald declared the Community College of Allegheny County and Kane Regional Centers will offer free identification, printed on loose-leaf paper, to any Pennsylvania voter who wants it. Officials will announce specifics of that distribution this week, Fitzgerald said.
Legal observers said the plan exploits a loophole in the state’s new voter-ID law, which mandates that voters show photo ID at the polls. The law, now facing a court appeal, allows accredited colleges and senior centers to issue permissible IDs. But that provision was designed to help college students and nursing home residents, not all comers, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.
“We have (county-owned) institutions in Allegheny County who should be committed to caring for the elderly and educating students now issuing voter identification,” said Heather Heidelbaugh, an election lawyer and Republican county councilwoman. She believes the local effort breaks state rules.
Fitzgerald, a Democrat opposed to the GOP-backed ID mandate, has said the Allegheny County plan meets the letter of the law and will expand ID access far beyond PennDOT, which issues driver’s licenses and free state IDs that can be used as identification at the polls. Some voters have reported delays and other complications at PennDOT centers, but a state spokesman said the agency will walk residents through any hitches.
Fitzgerald on Monday said “interested parties” from several counties — including Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland — have inquired about the Allegheny plan. Commissioners in Montgomery County, just west of Philadelphia, approved a similar program there on Thursday. An administrator in Northampton County, bordering New Jersey, confirmed it’s looking into the idea, too.
“It’s had a tremendous amount of support since we made this announcement,” Fitzgerald said. “I think the voters are very happy.”
County commissioners elsewhere in Western Pennsylvania said they have not approved any ID-printing measures like Allegheny’s. Officials in Democratic-leaning Beaver County and more Republican Butler County left the possibility on the table but had no specific plan to mirror Allegheny.
“I think in Allegheny County it’s a lot more difficult to get to these (PennDOT) photo-ID centers than it is in Butler County,” said Bill McCarrier, a Republican and board of commissioners chairman in Butler County.
His Democratic counterpart in Beaver County, Tony Amadio, said leaders there will discuss the concept.
“I like the idea,” Amadio said. “I think we should do everything within the realm of possibilities to make sure people can vote.”
Washington and Westmoreland counties favored Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or [email protected].