Pa. ads create confusion and fear on voter ID, voting rights advocates say

October 19, 2012

Despite an Oct. 2 ruling by a Pennsylvania judge putting the state’s new voter ID law on hold, a series of misleading ads and announcements is sowing confusion and fear among residents with just two weeks until Election Day, civil rights and union leaders contend.

Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled that election officials can still ask voters for photo identification but cannot require it. Simpson called the photo ID requirement reasonable and non-discriminatory but said there was not enough time before the Nov. 6 election to ensure that voters who lacked it were not disenfranchised by the change in the law.

That critical detail in Simpson’s opinion — that photo ID is not required in this election — has been lost in much of the $5 million advertising campaign by the Pennsylvania Department of State, voters rights advocates charge. On buses, an ad displays a photo ID with “SHOW IT” in big block lettering. In smaller type, it says photo ID is not mandatory. Moreover, state officials acknowledge that it was not until Tuesday, a full two weeks after the court opinion, that the last of the pre-decision billboards announcing photo ID as a requirement came down.

Confusion was compounded when PECO, the Philadelphia power company, sent a newsletter to 840,000 customers in its October billing with an announcement that voters must have a valid photo ID. A company spokesman said that the bills started going out a couple of days before the court decision and that an updated announcement is on its Web site. He said the information will be corrected in the November billing, which will be mailed Oct. 28.

Irwin Aronson, an attorney for the AFL-CIO’s Lawyers Coordinating Committee, a group of 2,000 volunteer labor attorneys working on elections rights issues in key states, said that the act of poll workers asking for photo ID could suppress the vote in some communities.

“We’re very concerned,” he said, adding that poll workers, who are not required by the state to undergo training, may not be fully versed on the court decision, which could slow lines and ultimately discourage people from voting.

Late Friday, the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, filed a petition asking Simpson to order Pennsylvania officials to cease advertising and distributing information about the photo ID requirement.

Courts this year have struck down or weakened measures passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures to tighten voting rules or limit early balloting. Judges have rejected new ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas, and the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by Ohio officials of a ruling that opened the door for all voters to cast ballots on the weekend before Election Day.

Wendy Weiser, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank at New York University’s law school, said that while courts have played “a critical role” in restoring voter rights, the recently resolved legal fights have left a residual uncertainty.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker announced that the labor organization would do targeted mailings and place robocalls to 100,000 union households in Pennsylvania, emphasizing that photo ID is not compulsory.

“We cannot let tactics like this stand,” Holt Baker said.

Ron Ruman, a spokesman for Secretary of State Carol Aichele (R), said the bus ads are faithful to Simpson’s ruling, which says that education and outreach on the transition to photo ID should continue. “That’s the direction we took from his ruling,” he said.

As for the billboards, Ruman said the department contacted its media buyer on the day of the ruling to ask for removal. “Unfortunately, it ended up being about two weeks,” he said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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