The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday kicking a challenge to the state's new voter ID law back to a lower court that already approved it may force a close look at state efforts to issue identification for voters.
When that lower court upheld the strict voter ID law on Aug. 15, Judge Robert Simpson said state initiatives to educate voters and create a form of identification that can be used to vote made it unlikely that the law would disenfranchise voters. When Simpson takes up the case again, he likely will look closely at Pennsylvania's efforts.
He will find what state officials say are sincere attempts to reach registered voters. And he will find signs of serious trouble. Few of the 2 percent of Pennsylvania voters who did not have state-issued ID when the law was passed have been able to obtain it, despite programs that state officials say are free and easy. The number of people who lack ID necessary to vote outstrips President Barack Obama's 2008 margin of victory in the state.
State officials have acknowledged that the state Department of Transportation, which issues driver’s licenses and photo ID, does not grant "free" photo IDs. Voters must provide several forms of backup identification in order to obtain a PennDOT photo ID card. That proof can be costly.
One Philadelphia-area woman who spoke with the Huffington Post last week said that she spent about $76, made three trips to a PennDOT office and two to the Social Security Administration and a state vital records office in order to obtain documents for the state-issued ID.
As of Friday, PennDOT had issued 7,980 IDs, said Matthew Keeler, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections. The Department of State has issued an additional 743 photo ID cards since last month, when it began providing a card based on easier supporting information, such as a Social Security card and two utility bills, Keeler said.
Those fewer than 9,000 Pennsylvania residents who now have ID sufficient for voting in November falls far short of the 758,000 people on voter rolls who state officials said in court over the summer do not have a Pennsylvania-issued photo ID. The officials later revised that figure to 100,000 people. The larger number “likely” includes some people who have military IDs, as well as individuals whose names may vary slightly in voter and state ID databases, Keeler said.
President Barack Obama carried Pennsylvania by 605,820 votes in 2008.
State officials said they are doing everything possible to make sure residents understand the voter ID law. In August, county election officials sent letters to about 758,000 residents on voter rolls, but not listed in the PennDOT database, said Keeler. This month, the state will send a letter to 8.3 million addresses -- every household that includes a registered voter. The letter will explain how to obtain the ID to vote.
In August, three advertising and public relations companies hired by the state began television and radio ads. The campaign is now in “wide circulation” with notices on buses around the state, said Keeler.