A case of mistaken identity | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A case of mistaken identity 

Courtroom testimony proves voter ID isn't an effort to hurt Democrats. It's worse that that.

I confess: When Republicans proposed Pennsylvania's Voter ID bill, I thought it was a partisan effort to keep Democratic voters — minority groups, the young, the poor — from the polls. 

But after reading hundreds of pages of testimony from a recent Commonwealth Court hearing about the law, I realize I've shortchanged Republicans. They aren't just putting the screws to Democrats; they may be screwing over democracy itself.

That suspicion dawned on me while reading the testimony of Rebecca Oyler, a government staffer who, last June, tried to determine how many voters lacked the photo ID required by the bill.  

Oyler's estimate: roughly 75,000 registered voters. After the bill became law, the state revised her estimate slightly upward — to more than 750,000 voters. 

Why had Oyler been so far off? It's actually not her fault. As Oyler testified, she was responding to a request from the House Appropriations Committee, which wanted to know how much it "would cost to issue free ID cards."

"You didn't have a lot of time to do that estimate, did you?" asked an attorney for those seeking to overturn the law.

"No," Oyler answered.

"They gave you a 24-hour turnaround?"

"Thereabouts, yes."

Let's pause here a moment. The voter-ID law — a measure to reshape the basic mechanism by which democracy functions — was first introduced in March 2011. It went through a slew of Republican-dominated committees in the House and Senate. Yet throughout that year-long process, only one committee asked, "How many people could lose their voting rights here?" And that committee devoted just 24 hours to finding an answer.

Nor did anyone double-check that answer until it was too late. A more thorough analysis, Oyler testified, would be "a long, extensive project that we did not have a chance to undertake." At least not until the bill was passed.

Oyler, at least, candidly acknowledges that her early estimate was too low. Her boss, Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, still isn't sure.

"[Y]ou understand ... even [Oyler] would say today that [the early estimate] is too low?" Aichele was asked when it was her turn to testify.

"Then I would disagree with her," Aichele responded. 

Oh. Well, never mind then. 

The 750,000 number probably isn't right either: As Oyler and others testified, it includes cases where typos and database quirks may falsely identify a voter as lacking ID. But with less than three months to go before the election, no one knows what the real number is. Nor did Aichele seem terribly interested in such details. She also testified that she didn't know when PennDOT hopes to issue a new ID-lite — an as-yet-unveiled ID for voters who can't acquire a birth certificate. 

"I have not talked to PennDOT" about the timing, Aichele said. 

This from a Cabinet secretary who, at a press conference a week before, claimed that voter ID was "the focus of all of our energy and ... attention." 

If that's not reassuring enough, Aichele told reporters about rude treatment she'd previously received from DMV employees — the same people who will be handling ID requests. 

Of course, there are few things Republicans profess to hate more than government workers. In the GOP lexicon, public-sector employees are parasitic bureaucrats at best, jackbooted thugs at worst. Yet Republicans have given those same employees just a couple months to administer sweeping changes to election law — changes which took a year to pass and which, in the case of ID-lite, still aren't completed. 

Outside observers doubt it can be done. In court, League of Women Voters President Olivia Thorne called it "unrealistic to assume that you're going to be able, in a four-month period, to reach this many people, and especially as [the law] keeps changing." Not to mention that, however Judge Robert Simpson rules in this case, his decision will certainly be appealed. We may not know the rules of this election until weeks before polls open.

If Republicans truly cared about the integrity of our elections, they'd delay enforcing the law. In legal filings, the state acknowledged it "will not offer any evidence [that] voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012." But the testimony in Simpson's court proves at least one thing: Harrisburg Republicans have contempt not just for Democrats, but for Democracy.  


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