July 13 (Bloomberg) -- Other than the candidates, the most important person in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign so far might be the billionaire Sheldon Adelson, or maybe one of the Koch brothers.
But now it looks like it could be Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson. If he upholds a new Pennsylvania election law at the end of this month and the decision survives appeal, hundreds of thousands of voters, most of them Democrats, may be disenfranchised.
That, in turn, could put Pennsylvania, once considered a blue state, into the Romney column and swing the election.
The Pennsylvania story offers another example of the rank cynicism of those who favor democracy everywhere in the world except the U.S.
After I wrote last month about the Republicans’ well-orchestrated efforts to suppress Democratic voting around the country, I received many critical e-mails saying that people are required to have photo ID to get into buildings, cash checks and perform other daily tasks, so why not require photo ID to vote?
Fair enough, but what these critics don’t understand is that in states such as Pennsylvania, the kinds of photo ID valid for everyday tasks will no longer be good enough for voting. The goal of these laws isn’t matching names and faces to protect the integrity of the ballot box. The goal is to beat Democrats.
State Representative Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania House majority leader, let the cat out of the bag at a Republican State Committee meeting about the party’s legislative accomplishments. “Voter ID -- which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania -- done,” he told the applauding crowd.
Lest you think the new Pennsylvania law is merely like gerrymandering congressional districts or the other shenanigans undertaken by both parties for political advantage, consider what happened next.
In the run-up to passage of the bill, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele promoted a study estimating that 99 percent of the state’s registered voters already have valid photo ID from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that would allow them to vote. In other words, the whole thing was no big deal.
It turned out that 9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million registered voters -- 758,000 people -- did not have ID from PennDOT. Very big deal.
Given that the state says more than 150,000 are inactive voters, that there’s normally some confusion over names and addresses, and that some nondrivers hold U.S. passports or carry photo ID showing they are active duty military or work full-time for the government, the actual number is probably smaller. For the sake of argument, let’s say that 500,000 Pennsylvanians are in danger of having their right to vote stripped away.
That’s a half-million people, some of whom have voted for years, now discouraged from voting or potentially disenfranchised because they don’t drive and don’t know they need to go downtown and fill out more paperwork before they can cast ballots.
Yes, those half-million people can get a PennDOT ID free, so Pennsylvania is technically not guilty of applying a poll tax, as Attorney General Eric Holder charged Texas with doing this week in a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But tell me again why it’s so different than the grandfather clauses, literacy tests and other ways that whites kept blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote in the Jim Crow South?
Oh yeah, it’s not blatant racism, only a huge power grab from hundreds of thousands of people who live overwhelmingly in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and are too poor to own cars.
Are they mostly black? We don’t know yet because Aichele, in defiance of the spirit of public disclosure laws, is dragging her feet on releasing the list. Philadelphia City Commissioner Stephanie Singer says that’s because Aichele knows any sign of racial discrimination would help the plaintiffs in their suit against the law, which goes to state court July 25.
“People tell me, ‘We don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a driver’s license,’” Singer told me. “I tell them, the reason you don’t know anybody like that is that they don’t leave their neighborhoods.”
In fact, many of the disenfranchised poor have other types of photo ID, but those are not valid for voting under the new law. Some people have photo ID bus cards issued by a metropolitan transportation authority. No good. Others work for city contractors and have city-issued photo ID that gets them into secured buildings. No dice, unless they work for the government directly. Veterans have photo ID that gives them entry into Veterans Affairs facilities. Nope. Can’t use it to vote, even if you’ve voted since the Korean War.
Under pressure, student ID was allowed, but only if colleges affix tens of thousands of stickers with expiration dates. No out-of-state college ID is valid, even for students on the Pennsylvania voter rolls. What an inspiring message for young people, whose only offense is that they tend to vote Democratic.
Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points in 2008, but some polls show him up by only five points this time around. Pennsylvania might now be in play. If it goes for Mitt Romney, it’s hard to see how he loses the election.
Although Obama campaign officials say they aren’t worried yet, they’re making contingency plans for a huge voter outreach program. “We will pursue all legal remedies but we cannot and will not depend on legal action alone,” Bob Bauer, the counsel to the campaign, told me.
Obama field organizers are hoping that this grim news will pump up volunteers, who will show residents how to obtain valid ID and register more people in the process. But many of the hundreds of thousands of endangered voters are presumed to be elderly, and it won’t be easy getting them to a PennDOT office to obtain a new card.
This election isn’t just Democrats versus Republicans. It’s about whether we want more democracy or less.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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