PHILADELPHIA – A controversial voter identification law adopted here earlier this year could have a bigger impact than any other of the similar provisions passed around the country over the last two years, potentially preventing tens of thousands of people from casting ballots in a state President Obama essentially must win to be reelected.
Ten states, many at the urging of Republican state legislators and governors, have passed measures that require a photo identification to vote. But many of the laws are in states where the election is not likely to be tightly-contested, such as Indiana and South Carolina, while courts in some key swing states, like Wisconsin, have struck down these provisions.
Civil rights groups filed suit against the provision, passed in March and signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. It, like laws in other states, requires that voters either have a photo identification at the time they vote or cast a provisional ballot that will counted only if they later present a photo identification.
If it remains on the books on Election Day, the law could dampen President Obama’s chances here. According to recently-released data by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), 758.939 voters—9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million voters—do not possess a state driver’s license.
Of the nearly 759,000 voters without ID, 167,566—22 percent—are inactive voters, meaning they have not voted in five years and have not responded to state inquiries regarding their current address.
But that leaves nearly 600,000 Pennsylvania voters not possessing the most common type of photo ID accepted under the law. That number is very significant; the president won Pennsylvania by ten percentage points in 2008, a virtual landslide in a historically-competitive state. But his margin of victory was a difference of 620,478 votes.
“Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a Republican, said to the Republican State Committee last month, listing a series of accomplishments by the state’s GOP.
Democrats have seized on the remark, arguing it is evidence that the new voter law here is not intended to stop voter fraud, as Republicans claim, but to deny the franchise from likely Obama backers. While Pennsylvania has not released a demographic background, in South Carolina and other states, government data showed the elderly, African-Americans and Hispanics disproportionately lack driver licenses. The latter two groups are very-pro Obama.
Ten of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties report more than 10 percent of voters without a PennDOT ID. And these counties include Obama strongholds such as Philadelphia, where 18.2 percent of the eligible voters don’t have driver’s licenses.
Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties account for 42 of all Pennsylvania voters without a PennDOT ID.
To be sure, not all of the 600,000 would have voted for the president, or are likely to vote at all. Nate Silver, the New York Times polling and data guru, has estimated these kinds of laws are likely to reduce voting by 2 to 3 percent, not 9 percent. Obama leads in most polls by at least five points here, and in 2008, he won in Indiana, a traditionally conservative state that was one of the first places to adopt a voter ID law.
And people here who don’t have a proper photo identification (passports, some government employee ID cards and student ID’s are also accepted) still have months to get them.
The Obama reelection team is aggressively trying to deal with this challenge and make sure all of the president’s supporters can vote in November. The Obama campaign in Pennsylvania has included information on the new ID requirement in all of its promotional materials. Further, volunteers who go door-to-door ask prospective voters if they have identification to take to the election booth. The efforts are part of a national drive by the Obama camp to combat voter ID laws.
And it remains unclear if this law will be in effect on Election Day. It will be challenged in state court on July 25, in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) and the law firm Arnold & Porter LLC.
Meanwhile, a nonpartisan coalition of 100 organizations across the state has urged the governor to ask lawmakers to delay implementation of it.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove