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Election law controversy

Christina Bergmann, Philadelphia / sp
October 26, 2012

Republicans and Democrats are at loggerheads over laws in some states requiring voters to show proof of who they are. Will the new rules prevent voter fraud or keep millions away from the polls?

US student Jasmine fills out a voter registration form
New controversial laws have mobilized people and led to voter registration drivesImage: DW

It's lunch time and the cafeteria at the Philadelphia High School for girls is buzzing with chatter and the clattering of plates. That's until school director Parthenia Moore calls for order.

"Your vote counts," she says in a loud voice that booms through the room. "You will make a difference as to what candidate will get elected," Moore says to clapping and cheering. "You will make a difference as to what our future as country looks like."

That's why, she explains, all 18-year olds or those who turn 18 by November 6, election day, still have the chance to register to vote. The independent organization "Committee of Seventy" has sent volunteers to the school to help with the registration drive.

18-year-old Jasmine has just registered. She filled out a form with 13 boxes. It was much easier than she thought, she says, though she had to call her mother to find out her social security number.

Jasmine says she had no idea that she needed to register to vote. "I just found out that today was the last day and I figured I might as well register."

Photo ID row in Pennsylvania

Jasmine didn't have to show photo identification when she registered and nor will the others voters in Pennsylvania when they head to the polls on Nov 6. They can simply carry bank statements or electricity bills as long as their names and addresses are on it.

It's a state of affairs that the Republican-controlled government of Pennsylvania is not happy about. The Republicans in the state passed a law this spring that would make it mandatory for voters like Jasmine to show a photo ID at the polling booth as early as this year. The aim, they say, is to prevent voter fraud.

But things aren't that simple. The law faces strong resistance with opponents saying the provisions aren't in place for it to work.

An estimated 200,000 people in Philadelphia and 800,000 in all of Pennsylvania don't have any kind of photo identification, according to Zachary Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy. The independent organization has championed voter rights for over a century.

Stalberg says it's difficult to put an exact figure on the number of voters without a photo ID. The ignorance of the lawmakers is also a problem, he adds.

"It was clear the state was implementing this way too quickly. It was unprepared, it kept changing the rules," Stalberg says. "As a practical matter, it was truly confusing to people what the ground rules were on any given day. And the closer we got to the election it became evident that it's not ready for prime time and it has to wait."

Zachary Stalberg, president of the Committe of Seventy
Stalberg says a lot of confusion surrounds the new voter lawsImage: DW

That's exactly what federal judges in the state seemed to think too. Earlier this month, they blocked the legislation that requires citizens to show a photo ID to cast ballots during the November election. Another hearing on the issue is set for December.

Democrats vs. Republicans

The photo ID issue has sparked a divisive debate on voter rights ahead of the presidential election. It's a dispute that's split along party lines. In recent years, the Republicans have pushed for tough photo ID laws in Pennsylvania and other primarily Republican-controlled states.

The Democrats meanwhile have vehemently opposed the laws; the one in the Pennsylvania legislature was passed without a single Democratic vote.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University for Legal Studies, 15 states in the US have pushed through changes to electoral laws that could impact voters this year.

The Democrats argue that tough laws target those who have a harder time getting a photo ID in the first place. That includes the poor, the elderly, the less educated, African Americans and other minorities. Those are groups that typically vote for the Democrats.

Scott Keyes from the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington D.C. says the tough laws could see up to 20 million people across the country deprived of their voting rights because they don't possess any photo IDs.

And tougher voter ID laws could make a big difference especially in battleground states and could decide the presidential election, Zachary Stalberg warns.

"Not only were they implementing it in front of an election but they were implementing it in front of a very critical presidential election," Stalberg says. "So it's seen to have partisan motives and some things that were said along the way underscored that there was a partisan reason for this to help Romney become the president."

Stalberg is referring to a remark by Pennsylvanian House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican who helped push the law through the Pennsylvania legislature earlier this year.

People eating at a soup kitchen in the US
Opponents of the photo ID measure say it will keep the poor away from the pollsImage: AP

At a fundraiser in June, Turzai had touted the voter photo ID law as a key achievement that would help the Romney camp this November, saying: "Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania - done."

Turzai's spokesman Steve Miskin however says the comment wasn't meant that way. "In hindsight, he (Turzai) should have added what everybody in that room already knew was that for the first time we're going to have a relatively level playing field in Pennsylvania thanks to voter ID," Miskin says.

That would make it possible for Romney to win in Pennsylvania, Miskin explains, but adds that victory is not guaranteed and it wasn't the motivation for the voter photo ID law.

With just 12 days left before the election, President Obama is still slightly ahead in the opinion polls in Pennsylvania.

Plenty of hurdles

One of the key questions is just how difficult it is for the voter to get all the necessary documents before the elections.

Republicans like Turzai spokesman Steve Miskin say the state can definitely demand of its citizens to make efforts to get a voter ID.

"The right to vote doesn't mean that voter has absolutely zero responsibility or have absolutely no type of inconvenience," Miskin says.

But Democrats and experts like Zachary Stalberg see things differently and say the process of obtaining voter cards is slow and laborious.

In Pennsylvania, citizens who don't have a driving license or a passport can get a voter ID at what's called the 'PennDOT' office. But that often ends up being a real hassle, according to Stalberg.

"You'd choose hell before you'd choose PennDOT," Stalberg says. "It's a long, unfriendly experience. It's probably like this everywhere but certainly in Pennsylvania, people don't go to PennDOT unless they must go. It can be a three-four hour experience," he adds. "In Philadelphia, at least we have several offices but there are many counties in Pennsylvania where there were no PennDOT offices. So you really had to take the day off and travel in order to get a card."

Photo IDs aren't the only controversial issue in the looming elections. Several tough recent laws around the country require voters to show proof of who they are and their eligibility to vote.

Committe of Seventy at the Philadelphia High School for Girls
Committe of Seventy helps to register voters and inform them of their rightsImage: DW

In Ohio, debate centered on whether all voters could cast their ballots on the weekend before election day or whether only soldiers can. The highest court has now ruled that there can be no limits on early voting.

In Florida, debate has focused on whether non-citizens should be tracked down on voter rolls.

Changing electoral rules has becoming something of a trend ever since the 2000 polls when the US Supreme Court decided not to recount disputed votes in Florida, leading to George Bush winning the vote.

"That got the political operatives on both sides thinking 'well how can we help rig this game,'" Stalberg says.

"The elections are sloppy and fragile but mostly as a result of human error and incompetency," he says. "And the people who work at the polling stations are paid very little for a very long day."

But there is scant evidence of widespread voter fraud in many of the all-important swing states.

"We haven't seen a lot of examples of voter impersonation or voter fraud in a way that people like to imagine that they exist in these old rustbelt cities," Stalberg says.

One thing's clear. The controversy around toughening voter laws has mobilized people and got them more involved in the looming election.

Initiatives such as the Committee of Seventy's registration drive in the Philadelphia girls' school are increasingly seen in several states. The goal is to inform voters of their rights and duties and encourage them to get out and vote.

That's already worked with 18-year-old student Jasmine. She says she now knows where she has to go on November 6.

"Right around the corner from my house there's a school and that's where I'll go to vote," she says.

And she knows who she's going to cast her ballot for - Barack Obama.