This past May, Pennsylvania legislators passed a law that would force the state’s voters to produce some form of photo identification at their local polling places to participate in elections. As of late September (according to a poll conducted by Franklin & Marshall College), 59 percent of Pennsylvanians supported the measure and 39 percent opposed it. Only days after this poll, however, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled in opposition to the law (for this election cycle, at least), meaning that voters do not need to prove their identity with state-issued cards to vote in the 2012 presidential election.
It is worth noting that Simpson voted in August to uphold this law, and it is also important to point out that the law was not struck down because it is unfair or unconstitutional, but because the measure would not allow enough time for those voters who do not have identification cards to obtain them. In the language of the Court, the law did not “ensure liberal access” to these ID cards in time for the election early next month. Another qualification of the law is that those working at polling places will be able to request photo identification, but even those who do not have cards will be able to cast a regular ballot.
This law was highly controversial from the outset: proponents argued that such a practice would discourage voter fraud and guarantee the integrity of an election; opponents claimed that it would disenfranchise tens or even hundreds of thousands of voters across the state.The Philadelphia Inquirer conducted a study that estimated 760,000 Pennsylvanians, or over 9 percent of the state’s voters, do not have identification cards. The SeniorLAW Center, based in Philadelphia, estimates that there are nearly 20,000 elderly and minority voters in the City of Philadelphia who do not own ID cards.
What raised such anger among detractors is the fact that voters who do not have identification are largely minorities from big cities (like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), students and the elderly. Civil rights groups and even the United States Attorney General Eric Holder compared voter ID laws to poll taxes which, in the Jim Crow South, were geared toward keeping blacks and poor whites from voting.
Another point worth making is that those on both sides of the argument are quick to admit that there are less than a dozen recorded instances of voter fraud throughout the country since 2000. The New York Times guesses at a figure around 120 cases in five years. Even the highest estimations are not large enough figures to swing elections in one direction or the other.
Fortunately, the law has been suspended for this election cycle, but further controversy is sure to abound in the coming years as those on both sides of the issue argue their cases: one side for fairness and integrity in elections, and the other for an equal right for all those eligible to make their voices heard in elections.