At the heart of a Pennsylvania judge's decision to let that state's voter ID requirement stand for the fall election is the notion that people can get those documents easily and cheaply, in many cases for free. Echoing the sentiments of the backers of such laws across the nation, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson no voter need be disenfranchised because they are poor or minority.
But the reality is quite different. As a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice notes, it's not so easy to obtain a state-issued ID in states with restrictive voter ID laws. In many cases, the issuing offices are located far away, are infrequently open and require applicants to provide documents, such as a birth certificate, which are expensive. Getting a copy of a birth certificate can cost $8 to $25, researchers note, which even in current dollars is higher than the poll taxes of the Civil Rights era.
In Wisconsin, Alabama and Mississippi, the authors say, the offices that can issue non-driver photo IDs are open fewer than five days per week. The office in Woodville, Miss., for instance, is open only the second Thursday of each month. Here's something else many of those offices have in common: Many are poorly served by public transportation.
The study estimates that nearly a half-million voters in 10 states with ID requirements don't have access to a car and live at least 10 miles from an ID-issuing office that's open more than two days a week. If that's not solid evidence of deliberate voter disenfranchisement, we don't know what else would do it.
And by some measures, Pennsylvania is the worst state of all. The Brennan Center study found that more Keystone voters (2.2 million) live beyond 10 miles of an ID-issuing office than in any other state. It was also the state that had the highest percentage of residents without access to a vehicle (10.4 percent). The combination is obviously deadly to voting.
As recent testimony in the Pennsylvania lawsuit demonstrated, there's precious little evidence of any voter fraud that a photo ID would correct. Indeed, authorities in Pennsylvania stipulated to that fact before the trial even began. They also agreed that fraud was unlikely to take place if the voter ID requirement is not in effect this fall.
But what there is substantial evidence of is that tens of thousands of people eligible to vote would be denied that opportunity under these recently-passed laws that appear primarily directed at helping Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates by discouraging poor, minority and senior voters who are most likely to lack the approved government-issued ID.
In Pennsylvania alone, it is estimated that as many as 1.3 million registered voters lack photo ID. A recent survey found those voters are more likely to be less educated, poor and living in urban centers, groups that tend to support Democratic candidates.
Republicans usually counter that photo ID will prevent the ineligible from voting or perhaps even voting twice. Across the country, they point to election results that suggest votes were cast under the names of dead people or non-residents. But proven fraud is extremely rare, and experts say the vast majority of such irregularities are simple accidents of bookkeeping — names are recorded wrongly at polling places or mistakes are made in the voter rolls or in the purging process.
The GOP has not been shy about the partisan nature of its voter ID strategy. The Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has bragged that the law is "going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."
The U.S. Department of Justicehas taken considerable heat in recent days for fighting voter ID requirements including Pennsylvania's, especially since the Keystone is not one of the states singled out in the Voting Rights Act for having a history of discrimination. But what was the Civil Rights Division to do, ignore disenfranchisement just because overturning it helps Democrats?
And what if Mr. Romney wins the election on the back of such blatant discrimination? In a close race, that's certainly a distinct possibility — and a frightening one. If the Americans thought the nation suffered from divisions of politics, race, ethnicity and class before, what follows would likely set worrisome new standards.