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Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Hits Philadelphia Blacks, Latinos Harder

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A Pennsylvania law that would turn away voters who don't have a valid photo ID would disproportionately suppress voting in Philadelphia's minority neighborhoods, according to a new study.

The study compared lists of people in the state's ID database with its voter rolls. Officials found that a staggering 1.3 million of Pennsylvania's 8.2 million voters -- more than 1 in 7 -- didn't appear to have valid state IDs. In Philadelphia alone, the figure was 362,000 voters, or about 1 in 3.

Those numbers almost certainly exaggerate the sheer size of the problem; the Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, raised serious doubts about the state's methodology after finding false hits for people with any form of punctuation in their names. But even if the scale of the numbers is off, their distribution shows troubling variances among the city's ethnically and racially distinct neighborhoods.

Tamara Manik-Perlman, an analyst at Azavea, a Philadelphia geospatial software firm, plotted the addresses of people the state says are registered to vote but don't have valid ID, and found that voters who live in the the city’s most heavily African American census tracts are 85 percent more likely to lack a valid ID than a voter who lives in a predominantly white area.

Voters who live in heavily Hispanic areas, meanwhile, were 108 percent more likely to lack the right ID than those in white neighborhoods, Manik-Perlman said.

A heat map charting the percentage of potentially disenfranchised voters in each precinct in Pennsylvania, compiled by the AFL-CIO, also shows clear concentrations in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas.

"It's clear to me that the intent of the law was to hit Philadelphia in just this way, in a disparate way," said Stephanie Singer, the chair of Philadelphia's election commission. Voter fraud is not the problem, she said. "The problem is that democracy is in a crisis in this country and the way we solve it is by connecting people to elections, not pushing people away from elections."

Republicans across the country have been pushing for stricter voter ID rules at polling places as one of a series of measures ostensibly intended to address the issue of voter fraud. But because that is so self-evidently a ruse -- in-person voter fraud, in particular, is incredibly rare -- the public is left to discern their true goals from the effects of their actions. And the evidence clearly suggests that the effect of their actions is to disenfranchise millions of mostly minority, poor or young voters, who are demographically more likely to vote Democrat.

Other tactics Republican state legislators and governors have recently pursued include the intimidation of voter registration groups and the purges of voter rolls.

Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled legislature passed the voter ID law in March, but its fate is uncertain. A state judge is expected to rule in the next few days on a case brought by voter advocacy groups claiming it violates the Pennsylvania constitution.

State officials have conceded that they had no evidence of prior in-person voter fraud, or any reason to believe that such a thing would be more likely without a voter ID law. The state's top election official, a Republican, acknowledged at trial that she didn't really know what the law said.

Contrast that with the recent comment by the Pennsylvania House Republican leader that passage of the state’s voter ID bill “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

Most states at this point don't require a photo ID for voting. Pennsylvania's law is one of the five strictest in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, because it only accepts a limited number of official IDs, and doesn't include IDs that have been expired for more than a year.

The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating whether the law discriminates against minorities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, renewed by Congress in 2006, prohibits states from imposing any qualification for voting "that has the purpose of or will have the effect of diminishing the ability of any citizens of the United States on account of race or color."

One of the most effective champions of voter ID bills has until recently been the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group funded by major corporations to create and pursue model bills with a right-wing agenda at the state level. ALEC announced it was getting out of the social policy business after public exposure of the group's role in passing so-called "stand your ground" bills of the kind that were widely condemned after the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

Taking up the battle where ALEC left off is the National Center for Public Policy Research, a right-wing think tank best known as one of convicted felon and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's favorite front groups for funneling money from clients and paying for favors to elected officials and their staff.

The center last week posted an article arguing that voter fraud is widespread and that it particularly victimizes the "the poor, minorities, the sick, the old, and other vulnerable members of society." But its only evidence was one case in New York where Democrats allegedly forged absentee ballots from disadvantaged voters in a primary. A voter ID law wouldn't have made any difference.

Nevertheless, the article was picked up and mischaracterized by conservative news organizations as evidence that voter ID laws would benefit minorities.

The findings of the Philadelphia study, by contrast, are consistent with previous research that incontrovertibly show voter ID laws making it harder for poorer and minority voters to vote.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly asserted that the National Center for Public Policy Research funneled Jack Abramoff's money directly to elected officials.

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