Pennsylvania's voter ID law is still without any power
Taxpayers have spent $6 million in advertising for a voter ID law that Pennsylvanians don't have to obey for the fourth consecutive election on Tuesday, one that might not survive a lengthy legal challenge.
More than $1 million has gone toward television, radio and print advertisements since Sept. 30, urging voters to “show it,” even though the state's controversial law requiring voters to show a photo ID is mired in the courts and under a judge's injunction.
Poll workers can request to see ID, but voters are not required to produce photo identification, which the ads explain.
“It would've been a much more prudent course of action to just wait, for the Department of State to just wait until the final decision and everyone knows whether the law is valid,” said state Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, who called the ads a waste of resources.
Last year, the state used $5 million in federal subsidies earmarked for voter education to run television and radio ads to promote the voter ID law before the presidential election. This year, the state updated the ads to reflect the status of the law.
Even if the law is not in effect, the state is responsible for educating people about ID requirements, said Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Department of State.
“We're doing education according to the law,” Ruman said, “and the law is you're going to be asked, but not required.”
The 32-second television ad implores voters who “care about this election,” “have an opinion,” or “want a voice,” to “show it” — with images of driver's licenses, passports, student IDs and state-issued IDs. A narrator tells viewers they will be asked but not required to show ID, and to look into obtaining an ID even if they could not get one in the past.
The voter ID law, which passed in spring 2012, awaits a decision by Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley on whether the statute will stand in response to a challenge brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose attorneys say the law disenfranchises too many voters.
“If you saw only the first 15 seconds of that ad, there is no other conclusion you would have other than the conclusion the voter ID law was in effect,” Smith said.
Witold Walczak, state legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the ads are disingenuous, confusing and a waste of money.
Even if residents have the necessary information, obtaining an ID may prove difficult for voters who lack transportation to get to a PennDOT office, he said, specifically the poor, elderly and disabled. And the state has not proved that the need for the law outweighs the problem of access to IDs, he said.
“To this day, they have failed to identify a single instance of in-person voter fraud, the only kind of fraud that would be addressed by this law,” Walczak said.
Both sides are prepared to appeal McGinley's decision to the state Supreme Court, although the path the law could take is unclear. Walczak said there might be consideration by a three-judge panel or the full Commonwealth Court before the state's highest court takes the case.
The Supreme Court ruled once on the law, before the presidential election last year. It decided the case would be argued in Commonwealth Court with a focus on how many voters potentially could be disenfranchised by the law.
With no presidential or gubernatorial election, off-year elections typically produce low voter turnout.
Election officials expect 25 percent of eligible voters in Allegheny County to cast ballots on Tuesday; 15 percent to 20 percent in Butler County; 22 percent in Washington County; and 20 to 25 percent in Westmoreland County.
Turnout for the May primary at the state level was in the teens, Ruman said.
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.