Notion of ID-for-access not new, backers of voting law say
Naytel Pack can’t do much in North Braddock without his driver’s license. He’s asked for it in the corner store, at the gas station, during stops by the local police – just about everywhere, “especially since I’m under 18,” the 16-year-old said.
In Mt. Washington, Tommy Smith, 47, may find himself blocked from bank transactions occasionally when he doesn’t have photo ID.
Morgan Hays might be bounced from the liquor store.
“Displaying ID is kind of par for the course,” said Hays, 21, of Brookville, ticking off a list of possible problem locations: tobacco stores, bars, some debit and credit card purchases. “I don’t have a big problem with it.”
A new photo ID requirement for Pennsylvania voters has become a political flashpoint, fueling a high-profile lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and a Justice Department investigation.
But the government investigating whether such a law here and in other states violates individuals’ voting rights has for more than a decade mandated government-approved photo IDs for millions of people who rely on key public and private services.
Without proper ID, a Pennsylvanian would be hard-pressed to legally carry a concealed firearm, board an airplane, rent a hotel room or enter a federal courthouse.
Applications for bank accounts, public housing and legal employment hinge on photo IDs, a point that voter-ID advocates argue. The government itself sets many of the ID standards, said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“And yet this is the same federal government … investigating Pennsylvania for imposing an ID requirement on voting,” von Spakovsky said.
Bearing arms, getting married and lobbying the government are constitutional rights that involve some level of photo ID, von Spakovsky said. Petitioning the Justice Department, for example, would require a person to present a photo ID to pass building security. Marriage license paperwork often contains a photo ID provision, including in Western Pennsylvania.
“I think it’s common sense that someone should have to prove who they claim to be,” said state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, who introduced the voter ID legislation that lawmakers approved in March. He drew a sharp parallel with the ID standard for carrying concealed firearms.
“Voting is very similar to exercising that right” under the Constitution, Metcalfe said. “I think we should be responsible in being able to produce identification.”
The ACLU, however, sees the ID mandate as unconstitutional, a standard that will unevenly hurt the elderly, people with disabilities, racial minorities and the poor. The law isn’t adequately tailored to combat fraud and will be an ineffective guard against voter wrongdoing, which hasn’t been well documented, anyway, detractors have said.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. “Robin” Simpson heard arguments last week in the ACLU lawsuit and said he plans to rule by mid-August, in time for lawyers to file appeals before the Nov. 6 general election.
Different agencies,same requirement
Different agencies underpin their ID requirements with different rationales. Amtrak, the federal rail company, mandated passenger photo IDs to improve security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a representative said.
Banks likewise ask for ID as a general security measure and to deter fraud, according to American Bankers Association spokeswoman Carol Kaplan. She said banks have imposed tougher security standards since 2001, when the government tightened its watch on terrorist financing.
Airline watchdogs felt similar pressures.
“We feel identity is important because we want to make sure an imposter isn’t trying to use someone else’s boarding pass,” said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Safety Administration. Formed after the 9/11 attacks, the TSA requires that passengers show photo ID before any flight.
But a fundamental difference separates TSA standards from the Pennsylvania voter ID rule, said Richard Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California.
Hasen said the TSA allows passengers to skirt the photo requirement if they’re willing to undergo a more rigorous personal scan. Pennsylvania’s rule offers no such loophole at the ballot box, said Hasen, a faculty member at Irvine School of Law.
A voter without a photo ID could cast a provisional ballot but it would count only if the person returned with valid ID, according to the Pennsylvania law.
“The question is whether it’s worth putting this new requirement in place when the amount of fraudulent activity and identification it would prevent is miniscule,” Hasen said. “The only kind of fraud a voter ID law would prevent is voter impersonation” or votes cast under fake names.
Those instances “pale in comparison” to absentee voter fraud, which escapes the purview of photo ID requirements, Hasen said.
Lee Rowland, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, cited “a total absence of evidence that there is any voter impersonation to be stopped by these laws.”
“When someone can’t buy beer, get into a plane or even get into a courthouse, that doesn’t weaken the fabric of our democracy,” Rowland said. “But when eligible voters are prevented from casting a ballot because they lack the precise type of identification required by these new laws, it does.”
The state acknowledged in the ACLU litigation that it has no awareness of “any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania” and it has “no direct knowledge of in-person voter fraud elsewhere,” according to a stipulation filed in court.
Pennsylvania estimates show as many as 750,000 of the state’s 8.2 million registered voters may lack photo IDs considered acceptable under the law. The state budgeted $5 million, using federal money, to promote the rule. Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration pledged free IDs would be available for anyone without one.
The Justice Department investigation is focused on whether the law discriminates against minorities, according to an agency spokesman. An estimated 25 percent of voting-age black U.S. citizens lack government-issued photo IDs, more than three times the percentage of white citizens lacking IDs, according to the Brennan Center.
Federal regulations ban measures that deny voting rights on “account of race, color, or membership in language minority groups.”
Asking voters to document themselves isn’t a new concept, though. It’s just the photo requirement that adds a dimension, said Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
As far back as 1903, Texas ordered voters to show a poll-tax receipt, or a poll-tax exemption, before they cast ballots. The U.S. Supreme Court declared poll taxes unconstitutional in 1966. But 30 states today mandate some type of voter identification at polling places, leaning on other forms of documentation.
Four states have photo mandates as strict as the Keystone State’s, Bowser said. Six others ask for photo IDs but allow substantial loopholes. The rest — 19 states — require voter identification, just not necessarily with photos.
Georgia and Indiana were the first to switch to the photo standard, in 2005. Their elections data show “no downturn in the turnout of minority voters,” von Spakovsky said.
In fact, “the large increase in turnout of Hispanic and black voters in the 2008 and 2010 federal elections far outpaced the growth rate of those populations in Georgia over a 10-year period,” he wrote in a March briefing.
Persistent angst over voter IDs could arise from a uniquely American trait, said Doug Chapin, an elections expert at the University of Minnesota. He sees an “American ambivalence to being forced to identify … with the government.”
“One reason this debate has gotten so hot — even setting election year aside — is that it touches on deeply held, deeply feared elements of elections and identification,” Chapin said. “I think people are trying to balance the notion of preserving individual freedom with how to protect society.”
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or [email protected].