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Mistaken Identification?

What is the state's voter-ID case REALLY about? 

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In a legal battle, a "stipulation" is a list of things both sides agree not to argue about in court. This document was filed days before attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups went to court, hoping to overturn Pennsylvania's new "Voter ID" law, which requires voters to present photo IDs at the polls. That legal battle is underway this week, but as the stipulation shows, while Voter ID is supposed to prevent people from casting a ballot as someone else, there will be no testimony that this has ever happened.


Skeptics of voter ID have trumpeted these acknowledgements by the state, portraying them as proof that voter fraud never happens. One attorney trying to overturn the law, David Gersch, argued in court that the state "is saying ... the problem doesn't exist. ... The current system works just fine."

The agreement "is not a concession ... that voter fraud has not happened," countered Patrick Cawley, a lawyer for the state. Voter fraud "will go undetected if there is no tool ... to detect it," he said. What's more, the law "does not require the legislature to have proof of such incidents in order to enact a voter-ID law." Just because a law is useless doesn't mean a court can toss it out, he added: "[W]e are not here to determine whether the voter-ID law was necessary."


If there's no evidence voter fraud will take place in the upcoming presidential election, why the rush? Democrats point to a statement by Republican House Majority leader Mike Turzai, who said voter ID will "allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." In any case, the tight time frame increases the likelihood of trouble. The state is rushing to provide an alternate ID for those who can't locate their birth certificates or other documentation — but they won't be available until late August. State officials do not, however, expect to issue many of them. When asked in court, "You're not going to add any staff?" to process requests for the new cards, PennDOT Deputy Secretary Kurt Meyers answered, "That is correct." 


While it would be highly unusual for a sitting governor to testify in a hearing like this, Gov. Tom Corbett may have special incentive for staying off the stand. During his eight years as attorney general, he never prosecuted a single voter-fraud case. And he seems hazy on the law himself: During a July 25 press conference, he struggled to identify the forms of ID that are acceptable at the polls, admitting he couldn't name them "off the top of my head."


The state's rationale is that "a photo ID is a tool to detect and deter voter fraud" — a necessary step to address "reports questioning the integrity of elections based on a variety of incidents." Arguably, though, that rewards partisan rumor-mongering — and sensationalist media coverage — by treating such "questioning" as if it was a symptom of a real problem. And concern about the "integrity of elections" can cut both ways.  Rebecca Oyler, an official with the Department of State who has worked on voter ID, was asked in court: If the photo-ID requirement "prevented eligible qualified voters from voting, [would it] reduce the integrity of elections?"Her answer: "Yes, if it did, it would." 


"In-person voter fraud" involves only fraud taking place at the polls. It does not cover the best-known election-related misdeed: voter-registration fraud, in which fake names are signed up to vote, like in the ACORN controversy. (Anyone trying to vote under a falsely registered name would encounter trouble anyway: Newly registered voters are already required to present ID at the polls.) It also does not cover absentee voting, which is unaffected by photo-ID requirements. Voters can use an absentee ballot if they swear they are physically unable to vote in person. As yet, it's unclear why a would-be fraudulent voter wouldn't just lie about that instead.

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