HARRISBURG - With a controversial voter identification bill set for approval by the Pennsylvania House, Democrats and advocacy groups from Philadelphia and around the state voiced concern that the move could end up hurting voter turnout.
House Democrats and Republicans debated the legislation for more than seven hours Monday and Tuesday. With a Republican majority in the House, the bill passed a key hurdle Tuesday night and is expected to win final approval as early as Wednesday and be sent to the Senate.
The action reflects a national trend - spurred by conservatives who won office in the 2010 midterm election - toward stricter election laws.
As many as 30 states are considering voter ID legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirteen - including Indiana, Georgia and Florida - now require photo identification, while 16 others ask for non-photo ID.
In 2006, Gov. Ed Rendell vetoed a similar bill.
Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Philadelphia) has been among the most vocal critics of the voter-ID effort in Pennsylvania. She has called the move an unabashed political effort by Republicans to disenfranchise poor, elderly and minority voters.
"This bill is going to achieve exactly the opposite of making elections more fair," said Josephs. "It's going to shut out legitimate votes in an attempt to shut out fraudulent votes that don't exist."
The proposal's sponsor, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), countered that it is about nothing more than keeping state elections honest.
"Every illegally counted ballot cancels out the vote of a legitimate voter," said Metcalfe. "Photo IDs currently are needed to board a plane, enter federal buildings, and cash a check. Voting is equally important."
Numerous groups have joined the debate, including the nonpartisan County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
Doug Hill, the association's executive director, said none of the counties has reported even a suspicion of significant voter fraud.
"It just doesn't happen the way supporters are claiming it does," said Hill.
State figures show that of the nearly six million people who voted in Pennsylvania in the 2008 presidential election, just four were convicted of voter fraud.
Figures published periodically by the New York University's School of Law suggest voter-ID bills have a more significant impact on minorities: black, Hispanic and Asian voters are five to 10 percent less likely to have the kind of ID necessary under such laws, according to a report published last month.
Other groups lobbying against the legislation include the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the NAACP, the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania and more than 30 others.
"Many of those people my organization represents are homeless and simply do not have ID," said Frances Hazam, a consumer advocate for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Andy Hoover, the ACLU's legislative director, agreed with that sentiment. He said the bill as-written would have a disproportionate effect on minorities, the elderly and those with disabilities.
"This bill is an expensive piece of legislation that would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who are eligible to vote but do not have the required ID," Hover said.
But during the House debate, Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) scoffed at such claims.
"Allegations that members of my caucus are attempting to shut out legally registered voters have no merit," Turzai said. "We have reports of thousands of false voter registrations during every big election cycle.
"There is simply no other way to insure that those people who show up at the polls really are who they say they are."
Contact John Manganaro at 412-335-9281.