Karen Heller: State defending an indefensible law

HARRISBURG - There is no voter fraud in Pennsylvania, none, zip. The commonwealth admitted as much in court during the three-week trial here challenging the state's voter ID law.

Yet voter fraud - rampant voter fraud - is ostensibly the reason the law was introduced and passed by the Republican-controlled legislature last year, just in time, as chance would have it, for the 2012 presidential election in an increasingly blue state.

Facing repeated legal challenges from the ACLU, NAACP, and other petitioners, the state has invested millions of dollars and thousands of lawyers' hours trying to enact and defend the voter ID law, known as Act 18, to stop a crime that, according to expert testimony, no one commits.

Pennsylvania used its $5 million in federal Help America Vote Act funding on voter ID, to get about 18,000 residents in compliance - a cost of $278 per voter for a law that still isn't in effect. As one election official said Tuesday in Commonwealth Court, "We sadly killed a lot of trees." And for what?

Voter ID, as Pennsylvania's Republican leadership has shown, is a strategy, not a policy. It was enacted in March 2012 to disenfranchise the elderly, disabled, young, poor, and people of color. You know, Democrats. And the timing was suspect, given that the state doesn't have a history of voter fraud.

House Leader Mike Turzai famously intoned last summer that Act 18 would "allow Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania." (He is so linked to that quote that he should get a tattoo. Well, except for the fact that it didn't happen.)

Earlier this month, state GOP Chairman Rob Gleason said he believed the law ultimately helped his party. "We probably had a better election. Think about this, we cut Obama by 5 percent, which was big. A lot of people lost sight of that," he told PCN-TV. "I think that probably voter ID had helped a bit in that."

A bit, and yet such a costly, lengthy, bit.

The commonwealth has spent almost $300,000 on legal bills for outside counsel. The basis of the state's case appears to be that election officials tried really, really hard to get residents voter ID during a truncated period.

Know what? After listening to testimony all day Tuesday, I believe them. But really, that's not the point. The issue is whether the law is fair to as many as an estimated 1.25 million Pennsylvania voters who may lack proper ID. I know you will be shocked to hear that Philadelphia had the greatest backlog of voter issues.

Closing arguments are expected to start Wednesday. Only a few reporters were in Commonwealth Court on Tuesday, while a battalion of television trucks were parked a few blocks away at a Penn State hearing at the Dauphin County Courthouse.

Pennsylvania has 9,300 polling places, but only 71 PennDot driver's license offices where nondrivers can apply in person for voter IDs. Of course, this is made all the more surreal by the fact that they can't drive, often substantial distances, to get there. Nine counties have no license offices, including, as chance would have it, Perry County, home of the state election commissioner, Jonathan Marks.

State ACLU director Witold Walczak presented multiple MapQuest travel routes a resident of the tiny town of Liverpool (pop. 956), where Marks lives, would have to travel to reach the nearest PennDot office, about an hour away and at least 34 miles. However, it is open only one hour each week (11 a.m. to noon Thursday) to secure the required photo and proper ID.

Mountains, rivers, and ferries are involved in making the various trips, a bucolic though arduous journey that brought to mind The Sound of Music's "Climb every mountain, ford every stream."

Seven elderly voters, some in their 90s, who lack proper documentation testified, including one Bucks County woman, a former chorus girl, who first registered in 1944 as Mrs. Carl Block. So there was a bit of history lesson there. We've come a long way, and yet, for some voters, they may still have farther to travel - particularly if they live in some parts of Perry County.

 


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists blog, Blinq, at www.inquirer.com/blinq.