Local opinions vary on voter ID decision

January 17, 2014
Gov. Tom Corbett listens to a question during a news conference Friday in Philadelphia. A nearly 2-year-old requirement that almost all of Pennsylvania’s 8.2 million voters must show photo identification before casting a ballot was struck down Friday by a state judge, setting the stage for a courtroom showdown before the state’s highest court. - Associated Press

“Limbo” is not an enviable state, either theologically or legally.

For the past several elections, the photo ID provision of a two-year-old voting law in Pennsylvania fluctuated somewhere between law and less-than-law, leaving elections officials in a quandary, if not quite purgatory.

So Larry Spahr, Washington County elections director, who must apply state elections laws, just wants the matter to be decided “either way.”

“At least we have a decision one way or another,” said Spahr, moments after Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley handed down his ruling Friday that invalidated the ID requirement. “We’ve been handing out fliers and hand-outs counties had to give out each election. They were a terrible waste of money.

“We’ll see what they do, if they accept the Commonwealth Court opinion or if they appeal,” he said of the Corbett administration. “We’ll just have to wait and see. This could be about change number 10. I’ll be awaiting whether or not we’ll get change number 11.”

By mid-morning, Spahr had a downloaded copy of the opinion and was planning to digest it either Friday afternoon or over the weekend.

Another Larry who looms large in Washington County elections, Larry Maggi, as chairman of both the elections board and county commissioners, said Friday afternoon, “I think the judge had a lot of information he had to deal with. I think there has to be a balance about the right to vote and making sure the people who do vote are eligible to vote.

“Being an elected official, the election process has to be pristine. That’s the basis for democracy. We have to make sure people who are voting are eligible to vote. In defense of the law, we have to make sure that person is who he says he is.”

Maggi, a Democrat, lives in Buffalo Township, a single-precinct community west of Washington.

“My precinct is somewhat small, but I can’t identify everybody there. To show some sort of identification is not unreasonable.”

Asked if he thinks a photo ID should be shown before voting, Maggi said, “That’s important to be able to ID that person.”

Not surprisingly, chairmen of Washington County’s two major political parties were as far apart as a Polar Vortex and the tropics in their views of Judge McGinley’s decision.

“It is sad when the politically connected judges rule in support of the stupidity of any party or group as it damages the entire electoral system. This judge is part of the Rooney family from Pittsburgh, and we all know the connection they have with the Obama administration,” wrote Bill Merrell, chairman of the Washington County Republican Party, in response to a request for comment via email.

Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, supported the 2008 presidential run of then-Sen. Barack Obama, who after becoming president appointed Rooney as United States ambassador to Ireland.

“Keeping any ‘political company line’ when you’re a judge should be grounds for removal from that important office,” continued Merrell, a retired teacher and member of the Peters Township School Board. “When you have to demonstrate an ID for sending funds at Walmart to getting government-supported IRS and other checks cashed at the store, an ID is always needed. It seems when more people are voting in some political subdivisions than people signed up, judges should be the second line (the local elections office is the first) of defense to protect the American voting system, but this kind of ruling makes you wonder why we need them anymore.”

George Vitteck, Washington County Democratic Party chairman, informed of McGinley’s decision, said Friday morning, “I question the motives as to why they put this law into effect. The decision was correct. I think the Republicans see the population of minorities, Latinos and lower-income people, too, as breaking away the white base. They see the future, and they see the numbers are against them.”

Vitteck, 78, who is serving his final months as Democratic chairman, said, “People are poorer now than when I was a kid. I was 21 when I started in politics. All the people remembered the Depression, and you had no trouble getting people to vote. In Peters Township (a Republican stronghold), they only vote once every four years.”

Low turnout in elections, Vitteck said, affects both rich and poor. “The low-income people don’t have an initiative to vote, so this is another hindrance on them,” he said of voter photo identification.

The NAACP quickly applauded McGinley’s ruling.

“This decision helped end our three-year-long fight to protect the rights of voters in Pennsylvania,” said Jotaka Eaddy, NAACP voting rights director and senior adviser to the president and CEO. “This court recognizes that unnecessary barriers to the ballot box are counter to the principle this nation holds most dear – that all citizens should have free and unfettered access to the ballot box. The NAACP, Pennsylvania State Conference, ACLU and other plaintiffs have worked tirelessly for this moment, and we hope to repeat this victory across the nation.”

The president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, one of the plaintiffs in the case, also weighed in.

“If upheld, this law would have had catastrophic consequences throughout the entire state by undermining access to the ballot,” said Susan J. Carty.

“The law was particularly burdensome on the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income voters – groups that would have been required to travel to one of only 71 Pennsylvania Department of Transportation locations to obtain identification for voting,” she added. “Attorneys also showed that the state’s misleading education campaign has caused widespread confusion about the law from voters and poll workers alike, and that officials were simply unable to get ID into the hands of people who needed them. And as Pennsylvania officials themselves admitted, there is no evidence of in-person voter fraud in the state.”

In a statement on the Republican Party of Pennsylvania website, Chairman Rob Gleason released this statement: “The overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians support a way to protect their right to vote and combat voter fraud. While I am extremely disappointed with today’s decision, the Republican Party of Pennsylvania will continue to serve as a leading advocate for policies that ensure a fair right to vote for all Pennsylvanians.”

Democratic National Committee Director of Voter Protection Pratt Wiley also released a statement emailed to news organizations.

“Today’s ruling affirms our belief in expanding – not restricting – Americans’ right to vote. Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians, including senior citizens, young voters and hard-working citizens, faced obstacles to casting their ballots under this overreaching law, which Pennsylvania Republicans passed and Governor Corbett signed in 2012. This law should never have been enacted, and Democrats remain committed both to electing individuals who support expanding access to the voting booth and to supporting efforts to reverse burdensome voting laws like this one across the country.”

State Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, who represents Peters Township and who serves as the Democratic chair of the Senate State Government Committee, wrote in a statement, “Today’s ruling by Judge McGinley validates what Senate Democrats have repeatedly called an unconstitutional overreach. What has been illustrated is that a number of individuals have not been able to obtain proper identification to vote and that there have been confusing and misleading directives and over $1 million of wasted tax money by the Department of State.

“Today’s ruling demonstrates the flawed judgment by the administration to spend scarce funds promoting and defending the law in the midst of an ongoing court case. I urge Governor Corbett to stop throwing away taxpayer dollars.”

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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