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On Voter ID, a Democrat exposes a GOP law's weakness

Here's how much Pennsylvania Republicans care about the integrity of elections: Thanks to the voter-ID law they passed earlier this year, democracy has apparently been entrusted, at least in part, to nursing homes. 

Feel more secure now?

It took a Democrat, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, to illustrate just how flawed the law is. Last week, he announced that voters who lack photo IDs will be able to get them from the Community College of Allegheny County or the county-run Kane hospital system, which cares for the indigent elderly. Details were in the works as this issue went to press, but the county IDs will be free, and easier to obtain than a state ID. For registered voters, no birth certificate will be needed. A utility bill or paycheck will suffice — just as they did before Republicans established stricter proof of identity this year.  

So the voter-ID debate has brought us full circle. For years, Republicans stoked hysteria over "voter fraud," despite a dearth of evidence that it happens to any measurable extent. They then crafted a law to deal with the non-existent problem. Now, if Fitzgerald's work-around is successful, the stricter requirements may dissolve into thin air as well.

Fitzgerald is using a loophole which allows people to vote with IDs issued by state-sanctioned nursing homes and colleges. The idea, obviously, was to issue such IDs to students and patients ... but the law doesn't explicitly say that. As a state official acknowledged during an August Commonwealth Court hearing on the law, a hospital could "issue an ID to a stranger who comes in off the street." 

By contrast, the law does prohibit poll workers from accepting IDs issued by local governments, unless the voter is actually a government employee. As a result, nursing homes are arguably better positioned to be election gatekeepers than the county itself ... even though county officials are the ones who actually add up the ballots.

It's such a bizarre quirk that opponents of the law have cited the nursing-home provision as proof the whole thing should be junked. A nursing-home ID, attorney David Gresch argued during that August hearing, is "something that my 11-year-old could mock up in about five minutes."

For the GOP, this has got to be embarrassing. You can't necessarily expect competent leadership from Republicans, but they should at least be capable of political shenanigans to suppress the other side's vote. 

Republicans grouse that while Fitzgerald is following the letter of the law, he's disregarding its intent. Well, of course: The law was first and foremost intended to suppress Democratic turnout. State House Republican leader Mike Turzai acknowledged as much when he famously predicted that the voter ID requirement would "allow Governor Romney to win ... Pennsylvania." You can't expect Fitzgerald to respect that.

And this, children, is one difference between Democrats and Republicans. Republicans rewrite the rules to make voting harder; Democrats use loopholes to make it easier. "Our job is to make voting accessible," Fitzgerald said during a Sept. 20 press conference. 

If nothing else, Fitzgerald has pointed out the Pennsylvania GOP's slap-dash approach to the fundamental mechanism of a democracy. Other states that passed voter-ID laws, like Georgia, phased them in over years. But Pennsylvania Republicans wanted to ensure that their law would be in place for the November election, and so they allowed only a few months for implementation. 

The result? Some portions of the law threatened to unjustly disenfranchise tens or hundreds of thousands of voters. (Which is why Gov. Tom Corbett's administration had to begin issuing its own easier-to-get ID card last month.) Other portions, like the nursing-home provision, were written shoddily enough that they could undermine the whole purpose. At this point, it's hard to see why opponents or supporters of Voter ID should have any faith in the law. 

Then again, maybe undermining people's faith is the point. Back in the bad old days, elections used to be decided by wedge issues. Today, the elections themselves are wedge issues. In the minds of right-wing partisans, their outcome settles nothing, but becomes just another grievance to exploit.

That is, after all, about all Republicans seem capable of doing anymore. 

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