08/02/2012 04:56 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2012

In Voter ID Debate, Devil Is in the Details

Since Pennsylvania is a swing state in this year's presidential election, it has become a flashpoint in the ongoing debate over voter ID laws. It is no surprise, then, that many observers are now eagerly awaiting a decision in the recent trial over Pennsylvania's new ID law. Fortunately, the trial unearthed some important trends that will add clarity to an increasingly muddled national debate.

An expert report in the case, written by Professor Matt Barreto from the University of Washington, gets to the crux of the issue: many voters' perceptions of these laws do not match their ugly reality. According to the report, nearly 98 percent of eligible voters in Pennsylvania believe they have a photo ID that complies with the state's voter ID law. Most voters do not think their voter ID will cause them problems on Election Day.

But Barreto argues that over 14 percent of eligible voters -- about 1.4 million people -- in Pennsylvania do not have a photo ID that conforms to the specific requirements in the state's voter ID law. The majority of these eligible voters -- over 750,000, in fact -- voted in 2008. To put these numbers in perspective: Barack Obama's margin of victory in the Keystone State was only 600,000 votes in 2008.

Why the discrepancy between perception and reality? Unfortunately, the specifics of restrictive voter ID laws mean that many voters with a photo ID still might not be able to cast a vote that will count. Pennsylvania's law requires voters to present a current photo ID with an expiration date; IDs issued by the state's Department of Transportation can be expired by up to one year. Just over one percent of eligible voters in the state lack photo ID entirely, but nearly nine percent -- about 825,000 eligible voters -- do not have photo IDs that meet these expiration criteria. The law also requires the name on the photo ID to match the voter's name on the registration list. According to Barreto, an additional four percent, or 400,000 eligible voters, do not have a photo ID with their exact current legal name.

Because of these very specific requirements, about 1.25 million eligible voters in Pennsylvania, including 700,000 people who voted in 2008, think they have the kind of ID required for voting but actually might not. Many of these voters could be turned away at the polls on Election Day, with significant consequences for the state's -- and the nation's -- election outcomes.

The findings in the trial also undermine the argument made by many politicians that even if voters do not have the kinds of photo ID required by these laws, they can obtain them free of charge from the state. Barreto's report found that 37 percent of the Pennsylvania's eligible voters still aren't aware of the law. If voters do not know about these laws or that their photo ID does not conform with the law, making voter ID free will not prevent voters from being disenfranchised. Though states like Pennsylvania may be spending some money to educate voters, they have not done enough to get out the word.

But even for voters who know about the law, it can still be difficult to obtain voter ID. As a recent Brennan Center report found, nearly 2.2 million eligible voters in Pennsylvania live more than 10 miles from the nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days per week. About 130,000 of those eligible voters do not have a car. And even when offices are nearby, voters may find some of them closed more often than open: about 10 of the offices in the state are open only one day per week.

All of this suggests that it is time to stop thinking that voter ID laws won't affect ordinary Americans. In the abstract, these laws may seem straightforward. But their details make the reality very different. Voter ID laws threaten the fundamental right to vote and, along with it, the principles of equality that are staples of the American civic creed.