In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld on a 6-to-3 vote the constitutionality of laws requiring voter ID at the polls. Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the left-of-center judges on the Court, wrote the opinion in a case involving Indiana’s voter-ID law: He found that the Court could not “conclude that the statute imposes ‘excessively burdensome requirements’ on any class of voters.”
But our Constitution decentralizes our election procedures over 13,000 counties and towns, and states themselves are in charge of writing voter-ID laws should they choose to do so. Some do it better than others.
Last Friday, Judge Bernard McGinley of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court found that his state’s voter-ID law violated Pennsylvania’s constitution because the manner in which it was implemented placed an unreasonable burden on voters. The law, passed in 2012, had been blocked from taking effect while the court case against it ground forward. McGinley’s decision is likely to be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Or the legislature could pass a new version of the law that would answer the judge’s objections.
McGinley concluded that the law had been implemented in a sloppy, haphazard way and that the state had not done enough to help provide IDs to voters who lacked one. Opponents of voter-ID laws are cheering the Pennsylvania ruling as a harbinger of further rollback of such laws nationwide. But it’s hardly that. “The relevance of this ruling to other voter ID challenges is somewhat limited,” writes
Rick Hasen, a law professor specializing in election law at the University of California at Irvine. “The findings on implementation are state specific and don’t really carry over to other states.”
In addition, the judge found that Pennsylvania’s law was not motivated by any effort to disenfranchise minorities or Democratic voters — despite comments from a couple of GOP state legislators predicting that the law, if it stood, would reduce voter fraud in the overwhelmingly Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia.
What won’t be helpful in the defense of voter-ID laws in other states was Judge McGinley’s finding that the state offered no evidence to support its claim that the law was needed to block voter fraud. That decision by attorneys from the office of Kathleen Kane, the state’s Democratic attorney general, badly undercuts supporters of the law.
It’s not as if there aren’t clues that voter fraud is a problem. In 2012, Philadelphia city commissioner Al Schmidt, a Republican, issued a 27-page report on irregularities he found in a sample of city precincts during that year’s primary. The report, which looked at only 1 percent of the city’s districts, found cases of double voting, voter impersonation, and voting by non-citizens, as well as 23 people who were not registered to vote but nonetheless voted. Schmidt also found reports of people who were counted as voting in the wrong party’s primary. “We identified hundreds of cases of voting irregularities [in select precincts] that warrant further investigation,” he concluded.
But his report was largely ignored by city officials, who operate in an environment that former Democratic governor Ed Rendell (and former Philadelphia mayor) admitted to me was “a yeasty system where the rule of law isn’t always followed.” Indeed, the city has long been a fount of corruption. This was also true when Republicans ran a machine that dominated the city for 80 years, until the 1950s; during that period, not a single Democrat was elected mayor, in part because of Republican-led voter fraud. All that changed after Democrats seized control of the levers of city power and bent them to their will.
Longtime observers of Philadelphia are quite candid about what goes on there. The late Arlen Specter, who served Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate as both a Republican and a Democrat, openly scoffed at liberal claims that there was no voter fraud. “They don’t see what they don’t want to see,” he told me in 2011. “I’m from Philadelphia. It’s been a way of life here.” Even after he became a Democrat, he stood by his 2007 GOP vote in favor of requiring photo IDs in all federal elections.
One reason for this is that Specter may once have been a victim of voter fraud himself. In 1967, he ran for mayor as a reform Republican against a Democratic machine that, Specter said, was “highly suspect if not demonstrably corrupt.” Specter lost by 10,000 votes out of more than three-quarters of a million cast, and he strongly suspected that voter fraud played a big role in his loss.
Chris Matthews, the left-wing MSNBC host who hails from Pennsylvania, agrees that voter fraud is a Philly tradition. On Hardball he explained a common scheme there: Someone calls to enquire whether you voted or are going to vote, and “then all of a sudden, somebody does come and vote for you.” Matthews says it’s an old strategy in big-city politics: “I know all about it in North Philly — it’s what went on, and I believe it still goes on.”
Having said that, the same government entities that historically have failed to adequately address voter fraud also apparently botched the implementation of the state’s voter-ID law. Judge McGinley found that the that state deployed too few mobile units to issue voter IDs and that wait times at DMV offices for voter IDs were often long. The state also spent too little money on educating voters about the new law and often issued vague implementation regulations on the fly.