By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania officials are playing catch-up in implementing the voter ID law.
This week, the state announced two more changes relating to the controversial law, involving the same issues debated in a Harrisburg courtroom.
Tuesday and Thursday, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson heard the case, as directed by the Supreme Court, to determine whether the state has made it easy enough to obtain an ID in order to vote. Opponents say the law, and the process to get an ID, disenfranchises voters.
Meanwhile, the state has been negotiating with union workers and changing proof of identification requirements to get the IDs into people’s wallets, part of the effort to get everyone an ID before Election Day.
Most of the state’s recent changes involve what happens at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Driver’s Licensing Centers for ID applicants, from extended hours to loosening requirements.
The state will open up 48 of its 71 of its PennDOT Driver’s Licensing Centers on Monday, Nov. 5, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. “to better serve customers with last-minute Voter ID needs,” a news release says.
Those 48 centers are typically open Tuesday through Saturday.
The state made an arrangement with public workers’ union the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents PennDOT unionized employees, to make the change.
The state will pay an extra $25,000 to keep the centers open to cover the extra wages, said PennDOT spokeswoman Jan McKnight. In exchange for working Nov. 5, the workers will have Saturday, Dec. 22, as an unpaid day off, creating a four-day weekend around the Christmas holiday, McKnight said.
Already, PennDOT extended hours at five Philadelphia licensing locations.
The state also has dropped a requirement for obtaining a voting-only photo ID, issued by the Department of State but applied for at PennDOT licensing centers. Originally, voters had to provide two proofs of address when signing up, in addition to their Social Security number.
Now, no proof of address is necessary.
Additionally, the department sent out a release announcing that all IDs could be obtained with “one trip to PennDOT.”
This change happened because a lag in county registration files entered in the registry could keep newly registered voters from coming up in the state’s database, Ruman said. The Department of State would then cross-check the information, and once those registrations popped up in the system the voter returned to PennDOT to get the ID.
Ruman said this happened about 60 times. Now, once the voter comes up in the system as registered, DOS will mail the applicant his new ID.
“We’ve been working all along to try to find ways we could make it easier for folks within the parameters of the law,” Ruman said.
These changes come six months after the law was passed, the latest in a series of adaptations to a measure that’s drawn nationwide scrutiny for its potential to disenfranchise voters.
When the voter ID law was initially heard in Commonwealth Court this summer, testimony revealed that PennDOT employees weren’t uniform in implementing the law.
Simpson then upheld the law, but plaintiffs filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court. The high court’s majority opinion required the Commonwealth Court to further examine the law based on the accessibility of ID cards.
Simpson must deliver his response by Oct. 2.
Court testimony this week included examples of people who had difficulty obtaining identification, as well as complications caused by the voter registry database used by DOS.
One of the plaintiff’s witnesses, Ashindi Maxton, is a director of partner services with the Service Employees Union International. She said she traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pennsylvania over the past month to help voters get ID cards.
In her testimony, Maxton said she “met a number of people who had difficulty getting ID,” and reported inconsistencies in information reported across PennDOT licensing centers.
One witness called by the state, Commissioner of the Bureau of Elections Jonathan Marks, testified about the “SURE” system, or the database of registered voters. In questioning, attorneys for the plaintiffs pointed out the state has fewer resources to run the registry help desk than it used to, even with the new call volume of ID applicants at PennDOT.
Witold Walczak, the attorney for the plaintiffs and legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said in his closing argument the state cannot guarantee there won’t be glitches in the system, especially with the new procedures.
“You really can’t say everybody’s going to be able to get an ID,” he said.
The state, on the other hand, touted the work done by officials and reminded Simpson that the case is about how the Department of State-issued ID is implemented.
The state’s record of implementation “shows a commitment,” said attorney Alicia Hickok, to making sure all voters have an ID.
Simpson said he was considering a partial injunction to the law, holding back a piece applying to provisional ballots. Those ballots could be cast by voters who did not have a photo ID at the time but have the ability to show one up to six days after election day to have their vote count.
A preliminary injunction could allow votes to be counted from those unable to obtain an ID before the election — and only this election, Simpson noted — but both attorneys said they were hesitant to predict what the judge would do.
Still, outside the courtroom, further scrutiny to the state’s implementation applies.
Just this week, the progressive policy think tank Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center released a report that examined accessibility of IDs at PennDOT. It concluded that employees weren’t well-versed in the laws requirements and that the DOS ID card was not readily available.
“The Voter ID Law has been a moving target with frequent changes in procedures and now a brand new type of ID,” said Sharon Ward, in a statement. “With very little information about this alternative voter ID available at licensing centers, voters could easily become confused or conclude they lack the documentation needed for an ID.”