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Fitzgerald's voter ID proposal panned

| Friday, Sept. 21, 2012, 12:19 a.m.
A sample of the voter IDs Allegheny County will issue.

State officials and an Allegheny County councilwoman raised questions on Thursday over County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's plan to print photo IDs for voting on “loose-leaf paper.”

Fitzgerald, a Democrat opposed to the law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls, said the Community College of Allegheny County and Kane Regional Centers would offer the free identification to any Pennsylvania voter who wants it.

The law, which a Commonwealth Court judge is reconsidering for enforcement during the Nov. 6 elections, allows voters to use ID from accredited colleges and long-term care facilities such as the Kanes.

“The idea was to provide the ID for people associated with the college as a student or as a resident of the care facility,” said Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections. “We do not believe the intent was that these facilities could make IDs for anyone.”

“This is a circumvention of” the law, said Republican County Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh of Mt. Lebanon, an election lawyer. “It's not what was intended.”

Fitzgerald defended the program, saying it follows the law and will afford voters more and easy options for getting IDs. Those issued through CCAC and Kane centers will be good for five years and appear on 8.5-by-11-inch paper — “like a regular piece of loose-leaf paper,” Fitzgerald said.

“There's no way” to mistake them for official college or senior-center IDs, he said.

“Our job is to make this easy; our job is to make voting accessible,” Fitzgerald said at a Downtown news conference. He said the outreach will help disadvantaged residents cross “that high bar and the many hoops that the Republicans in the Legislature tried to impose on the voters.”

State officials do not see the effort as “necessarily illegal,” Ruman said. However, it raises questions over whether the new IDs may be misused.

“If I had a child at that institution, I would be very concerned,” he said. “Whatever else is on (the IDs), these say, ‘Community College of Allegheny County' and have a picture on them. That presents a problem.”

He encouraged voters to seek free photo IDs through the state Department of Transportation.

The partisan debate over Pennsylvania's voter ID law has attracted national attention.

Supporters say it's necessary to prevent fraud. Detractors say the law will disenfranchise an untold number of voters without proper ID, especially the poor, elderly and minorities

Election-law expert Nathaniel Persily isn't convinced the county ID campaign will get many takers — “unless, of course, a high-schooler might be able to buy beer as a result.”

About six weeks before Election Day, “most people worried about voting have gone to get IDs” already, said Persily, a Columbia University law professor.

“If people are unwilling to go to a PennDOT office with their birth certificate, it's not clear to me what share of the population” will use the county option, he said.

Logistics for the county ID distribution, including specific times and locations, will be announced within days. The county has not set a budget for the service. That will depend on demand, Fitzgerald said.

Participants should be registered voters and must present some form of ID acceptable under the previous voter law, such as a nonphoto state or federal ID, a current utility bill or a paycheck.

The state Department of Transportation has provided free photo IDs to eligible voters since mid-March.

From March 14 through Monday, PennDOT offices released 9,478 new IDs statewide specifically for voting needs, Ruman said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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