Allegheny County's 90% voter rate draws scrutiny from D.C. group
As it wrangles over a controversial voter identification law set to take effect in November, Pennsylvania might be the next target of a foundation that sued two states to clean their voter rolls.
Allegheny County in particular concerns the Washington-based Judicial Watch, which this summer sued Indiana and Ohio. It believes a high voter registration rate in the county — nearly 90 percent in 2010 — could point to outdated and corruption-prone voter lists, foundation President Tom Fitton said Wednesday. National voter registration averages are closer to 70 percent.
“This is a long-term problem,” Fitton told the Tribune-Review a day before the state Supreme Court hears a challenge over the state voter ID law. “But we hope by publicizing this issue that elected officials can take immediate steps to remove dead people from the rolls.”
Mark Wolosik, manager of the elections for Allegheny County, said his department follows state and federal rules for removing inactive names from the list.
“You cannot remove a voter until you go through all these (necessary) steps,” he said.
Fitton said the new requirement to show ID at polls could reduce the risk of fraud fostered by inaccurate voter rolls.
Justices will hear arguments Thursday in Philadelphia over the ID mandate, which Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law in March. With Justice Joan Orie Melvin suspended while she awaits trial on corruption charges, the often-partisan issue will fall to the other six justices — three Democrats and three Republicans. A deadlock would effectively uphold a Commonwealth Court ruling in favor of the ID mandate.
Supporters believe the law will prevent voter fraud and bolster confidence in the elections. Opponents, represented in court by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Interest Law Center, argue the law presents a hardship for minorities, the elderly and low-income people who don't drive and have no driver's licenses.
Neither side could say how many people lack the necessary ID to vote.
Supporters have pointed to documented registration fraud in 2008 as a first step toward in-person voter fraud. State lawyers will say Pennsylvania has bent over backward to provide free IDs through the state Department of Transportation for anyone who needs one.
“PennDOT has been doing a remarkable job counseling people who come in for voter ID,” Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele said Wednesday at Chartiers Valley High School. She said about 91 percent of voting-age Pennsylvanians have PennDOT-issued identification.
Aichele's staff said the state takes “every step the law requires to keep our voter rolls up to date.”
As many as 30 percent of the state's more than 8 million registered voters might be classified as inactive, but state and federal rules can keep elections officials from purging some inactive registrations for as long as nine years, local and state officials said.
Shannon Royer, deputy secretary of the commonwealth, said counties cannot clean the rolls simply “at their discretion.”
Scholars suggested several factors could explain the unusually robust voter registration counts in Allegheny County. The number in Philadelphia is similarly high — 85.8 percent as of 2010, according to Judicial Watch.
“Urban areas tend to have higher mobility” as people move from city to city, among local neighborhoods or even within apartment complexes, said Justin Levitt, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He said that can lead to multiple registrations, temporarily, under the same name.
Other factors might include a surge in voter registrations from the 2008 presidential race and higher voter registration numbers through social service agencies, which tend to have a strong presence in urban centers, Levitt said.
There's little indication the registration trends lead to widespread fraud at the polls, experts said.
“Most people play by the rules. Most people don't want to commit a felony by voting twice,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University. “We see some people do it, but it's just such a rare occurrence.”
Fitton said imprecise voting rolls can undermine faith in the system.
“It's important not only that elections be free, fair and clean but also that they appear to be free, fair and clean,” he said. “Certainly, if folks understand that the lists of alleged voters are so wildly inaccurate, they ought to question whether the elections are similarly inaccurate.”
Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.