Pennsylvania voter suppression: A day in court

    Not much news was generated last Thursday, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments about the new state law, ginned up by the white people’s party, that seeks to hinder hundreds of thousands of voters – disproportionately urban and minority voters, natch – who lack government-issued photo IDs. But one exchange was particularly noteworthy:

    Judge Debra Todd asked John Knorr, an attorney for the Republican governor: “What’s the rush? Would it be better if we had two years and not 55 days” to work out the many kinks and bureaucratic hurdles in the new law – and thus ensure long term that all registered voters had photo ID?

    Knorr’s reply: “It would be better.”

    Hey, no kidding. Because right now we’ve got a situation right out of Franz Kafka. The law initially said that people have to produce raised-seal birth certificates in order to get photo IDs from the state Department of Transportation (PennDOT), but a lot of urban blacks who migrated decades ago from the south don’t have their birth certificates. The law was later amended, broadening the definition of “photo ID” to include, for instance, a student or employee ID from an institute of higher learning, as long as that ID carried an expiration date – but the geniuses in Harrisburg later discovered that nearly 90 percent of the state’s universities issue IDs without an expiration date. In any event, PennDOT remains ground zero for getting those photo IDs, but nine counties don’t have a PennDOT office (which is a problem, because, by definition, the aggrieved voter doesn’t drive), another 13 counties have offices that are open only one day a week, and the urban counties typically have long waits (as this persistent woman recently found out, after waiting four hours).

    Actually, that’s how the GOP’s voter suppression law was intended to work – by not working. Somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 registered voters are potentially disenfranchised by the law, yet, according to the state’s own testimony last Thursday, less than 10,000 of those voters have been properly sorted out by PennDOT. The rules keep changing, citizen groups keep rewriting their advice manuals, and Knorr himself said in court the state “could probably do better” if given more time. But the law didn’t lay out a long time line. Quite the opposite. It was specifically enacted to screw with this particular election and suppress voters who were likely to support President Obama.

    What’s really farcical is that, even now, the governing GOP is clinging to its discredited talking points. In court Thursday, state lawyer Alfred Putnam said that the law was passed last March in order to address the “declining confidence in our electoral system” – a reference to the GOP’s warnings about voter fraud, especially the people who show up at the polls impersonating registered voters. Hence the supposed need for photo IDS, to discourage those impersonators.

    Yet the state admitted this summer – in writing, in a court document – that it has no evidence whatsoever of anyone in Pennsylvania trying to impersonate a registered voter: “There have been no investigations and prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania . . . (The state) will not offer any evidence that in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania.”

    In other words, the voter suppression law was founded on a fundamental lie. (Or maybe it’s just self-delusion. Check out this story today, about a national conservative group called True the Vote. The group insists that a fleet of buses, packed with illegal voters, is roaming the nation in search of fraud opportunities. There is no evidence that these buses actually exist. They’re apparently as real as the War on Christmas buses, and the Plot to Kill Talk Radio buses.)

    But we were talking here about Pennsylvania. Since the state also admitted in writing this summer that it doesn’t possess “any evidence or argument that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November in the absence of the Photo ID law,” then, at minimum, it would clearly be wise to just go with the status quo in 2012 and give the state another year or two to implement the law properly – a time line that state attorney Knorr virtually endorsed in court last Thursday.

    Besides, the original intent of the law is falling apart anyway. The white people’s party wanted to tamp down the vote in cities like Philadelphia, to keep the minorities at home and thus improve the electoral prospects of Mitt Romney. But given the fact that Obama has now opened up an 11-point polling lead in Pennsylvania, it’s not likely that the voter suppression tactic will even work. What the governing GOP didn’t fully anticipate last March was that it would be stuck with a candidate as bad as Mitt Romney.

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    The Romney campaign seems to believe that 2012 is 1980 redux – that the economy will kill off the Democratic incumbent, and that Obama is akin to Jimmy Carter. But – do I need to say this? – the biggest flaw in the ’80 analogy is that Romney is no Ronald Reagan. My Sunday newspaper column, here.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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