Late last month, the majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Mike Turzai, was addressing a meeting of the Republican State Committee. He must have felt at ease among friends because he spoke a bit too frankly.
Ticking off a list of recent accomplishments by the GOP-controlled Legislature, he mentioned the new law forcing voters to show a photo ID at the polls. Said Turzai, with more than a hint of triumph: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
That’s not even slightly ambiguous. The Democratic presidential candidate has won Pennsylvania in every election since 1992. But now the top Republican in the Pennsylvania House is boasting that, because of the new voter ID law, Mitt Romney will defy history and capture the state’s 20 electoral votes in November.
Why on earth would Turzai imagine such a result? After all, the law applies to all voters, regardless of party affiliation. It is ostensibly meant only to safeguard the electoral process and eliminate fraud. Why would a neutral law have such partisan impact?
Thanks to figures released last week by state officials, we know the answer. It turns out that 758,939 registered Pennsylvania voters do not have the most easily obtained and widely used photo ID, a state driver’s license. That’s an incredible 9.2 percent of the registered electorate.
Most of the voters without driver’s licenses live in urban areas — which just happen to be places where poor people and minorities tend to live. More than 185,000 of these voters without licenses, about one-fourth of the total, live in Philadelphia — which just happens to be a Democratic stronghold where African Americans are a plurality.
Could suppressing the urban minority vote really give Pennsylvania to Romney? It probably wouldn’t have made a difference in 2008, when Obama trounced John McCain handily. But the statewide contest is often much closer — and turnout in Philadelphia typically is key to a Democratic candidate’s prospects. In 2004, for example, John Kerry’s margin over George W. Bush in the state was a mere 144,248.
Perhaps these numbers are so intoxicating that Turzai forgot the cover story about how voter ID is supposed to protect the franchise rather than selectively restrict it. His spokesman later explained that Turzai meant “the Republican presidential candidate will be on a more even keel thanks to voter ID” — in other words, there will be a level playing field once the new law eliminates all that pesky voter fraud.
That might be reasonable, except for one fact: There’s no fraud to eliminate.
Prodded by GOP political activists, the Justice Department under Bush conducted an extensive, nationwide, five-year probe of voter fraud — and ended up convicting a grand total of 86 individuals, according to a 2007 New York Times report. Most of the cases involved felons or immigrants who may not have known they were ineligible to vote.
Not one case involved the only kind of fraud that voter ID could theoretically prevent: impersonation of a registered voter by someone else. Pennsylvania and other voter ID states have, in essence, passed laws that will be highly effective in eradicating unicorns.
The Pennsylvania law and others like it are under attack in the courts; this week, a federal three-judge panel in Washington is hearing arguments on Texas’s year-old law, with a ruling expected next month. Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a conservative Republican, broke with orthodoxy last week and vetoed bills that would have toughened an existing voter ID statute. Maybe the tide is turning. If it doesn’t, these laws will potentially disenfranchise or discourage millions of qualified voters.
In a previous column, I wrote that voter ID was a solution in search of a problem. I was wrong: The problem seems to be that too many of the wrong kind of voters — low-income, urban, African American, Hispanic — are showing up at the polls. Republican candidates have been vowing to “take back” the country. Now we know how.