A Pennsylvania law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls — upheld in a court ruling on Wednesday — has sparked concerns from Democrats that the law will drive down turnout and deliver the battleground state to Republican Mitt Romney this fall.
But the Keystone State is just one of nine others nationwide that have some version of voter ID requirement, and experts say the new laws are not simply attempts by Republicans to hamper Democratic turnout but rather part of a widespread effort by both parties to tweak election rules in their favor.
Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at University of California Irvine and the man behind the Election Law Blog, has found in a study of election law that, since 2000, both parties have crafted election legislation aimed less at reform than securing victory.
According to Hasen, the amount of election litigation has more than doubled since 2000, in part because the parties are using election laws to further their own political gains.
In an era in which elections are frequently won or lost by a margin of just thousands of votes, even the smallest changes in election process can play an outsized role in a win or a loss.
In Pennsylvania, the state’s own survey found that more than 750,000 Pennsylvanians lack drivers’ licenses, the most common form of ID in the state.
That’s greater than the margin by which then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won the state in 2008, leading some Democrats to worry that the law could tip Pennsylvania in favor of Republican candidate Mitt Romney come November.
A prominent state lawmaker, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R), said as much at a GOP event in March when he told attendees that the voter ID law “is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
Under Pennsylvania’s legislation, the government must offer free ID to voters who lack a valid form.
The law faced a legal challenge from a number of voters' rights groups, including the ACLU, on its constitutionality. But a Pennsylvania court upheld the statute on the premise that it would not have an outsized effect on voter eligibility. The judge ruled that the law would affect possibly more than 1 percent of Pennsylvania residents, but not nearly the 9 percent alleged by opponents of the law.
Contrary to what some detractors have said about the Pennsylvania law in particular, and voter ID laws in general, these reforms aren’t just coming from Republicans, Hasen said. They are politically motivated reforms coming from both sides of the aisle, he said.
“It's not just about voter ID, it's about purging the rolls, it's about registration rules, it's about early voting,” Hasen said.
Hasen pointed to the effort in Florida to purge the state’s voter rolls of fraudulent voters, including but not limited to illegal immigrants and deceased voters. Democrats have raised concerns that the effort could disproportionately affect Hispanics in the state, but Hasen said that periodic housekeeping of voter rolls is necessary to keep elections clean and fair.
Democrats still hold that most of the recent voter reforms — including an effort in Florida to restrict early voting — unfairly target minorities and urban-dwellers, groups that usually turn out for Democrats. The Florida effort has been blocked by a federal court.
Many city residents don’t have IDs, because they aren’t likely to drive and obtaining the identification documents needed to get an ID can be costly and time-consuming. And in the African-American community, there’s a tendency to head to the polls after church the Sunday before Election Day, a practice that could be hindered by early-voting restrictions.
Katherine Culliton-González, a senior attorney and director of voter protection for Advancement Project, one of the litigants of the Pennsylvania case, sees the increase in voter identification laws as a hostile response to the election of America’s first black president.
“Oftentimes when a person of color is elected, there's a backlash against that. We're kind of seeing that on a national scale this year,” she said.
Culliton-González added that the election laws cropping up nationwide this year are unprecedented. Advancement Project is fighting against what she called “discriminatory” photo ID laws in Texas and Wisconsin, as well as the voter roll purge in Texas and an Ohio law relating to the legitimacy of provisional ballots.
“Politicians are trying to manipulate our most fundamental rights,” she said.
It’s yet unclear, though, what the new laws in Pennsylvania and elsewhere will do to turnout.
An analysis from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation found that in Georgia, where a voter ID requirement was implemented in 2007, turnout actually rose in 2008 and 2010, even among the demographics opponents of voter ID laws say are hurt by the requirements.
The author of that analysis, Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky, said the Democratic claims that Republicans are trying to hamper turnout is a scare tactic.
“They are worried about the reelection prospects of the president, and anything that they can do to scare their base — they, I think, want to use that to try to get people out to vote,” he said.
But opponents of voter ID laws point out that in 2008, Obama was a particularly galvanizing figure for blacks and Hispanics, and it’s unclear how much higher turnout would’ve been without the laws.
Advancement Project will continue to fight the Pennsylvania voter ID law, and Culliton-González said they’re aiming to expedite the hearing of their appeal motion on the case, in hopes of stopping the law’s implementation before Election Day.
But the fight will continue to play out in a number of battleground states with shifting election laws, including Pennsylvania and Florida, with the inevitable result that many voters will face new regulations when heading to the polls this year.