The New Voter ID Law: What’s the Big Deal?

by Stephanie Brown,
Writing Intern

As the US gears up for its 57th presidential election, Pennsylvanian voters find themselves facing a new problem. Any voter-registration worker will tell you that getting more than half of the eligible population to the polls on voting day requires a massive effort; but this year in Pennsylvania, poll workers will be turning large numbers of voters away, thanks to Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law. The law requires every voter to show a valid photo ID with an expiration date before entering the polls.

On the surface, this may not seem like a particularly unreasonable requirement. Most of us have some form of ID or another. In any case, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (known as PennDOT) has promised to give out free valid IDs to eligible voters who don’t yet have them. So in theory, no one should have a problem on election day. Unfortunately, reality is much more complicated.

Viviette Applewhite

Meet Viviette Applewhite. Applewhite marched for racial equality with Martin Luther King, Jr. and has voted in nearly every election in the past 50 years. After her purse was stolen, she made repeated attempts to get a new ID with no success, because Pennsylvania officials were unable to locate her birth certificate. “I’ve always voted,” Applewhite told the ACLU. “I’m going to miss this one though because I don’t have… any ID.”

Then there’s Asher Schor. Schor identifies as a man, and when he enters the polls, officials will see him as a man. But Asher’s ID, issued before his transition from female to male, still lists him as female and displays a woman’s photo. Even though his ID is valid, Asher, like other transgender voters, could be barred from the polls for carrying a seemingly “fake” ID.

And there’s Wilola Lee. Born in the segregated South, Lee, like many older African Americans, does not possess an official birth certificate. Although she has been trying for ten years to have one issued, her home state simply has no record of her birth. Lee has been a faithful voter and even served as a poll worker in Philadelphia, but she will not be able to vote in the upcoming election because without a birth certificate, she cannot get a valid ID.

Applewhite, Schor, and Lee are not rare or exceptional cases. Recently, Pennsylvania officials have admitted that as many as 758,000 registered Pennsylvania voters may not own IDs that will be accepted under the new law. Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele claims that this figure, which is equivalent to 9% of Pennsylvania voters, “confirms that most Pennsylvanians have acceptable photo ID for voting this November.” But allowing “most” of a population to have a certain right does not constitute equality nor democracy, particularly when those excluded are also the most likely to belong to marginalized groups.

Let’s take a look at those groups most affected by the Voter ID Law:

The poor

PennDOT claims that eligible voters can obtain a valid ID free of charge. However, this promise apparently comes with fine print. The ACLU has received multiple reports of voters running into unexpected fees for unexplained or obscure reasons. In addition, those below the poverty line may not have the time or resources to get to a PennDOT office and spend hours in line for a valid ID before election day.

The elderly

The time and effort required to apply for and receive a valid Pennsylvania ID may also be too much for some elderly voters, who may not have the physical capability to get to a PennDOT office or stand in line for long periods of time. Elderly voters are also less likely to possess driver’s licenses and more likely to have had their birth certificates lost or misplaced by the government, barring them from obtaining valid IDs.

African Americans

Many African Americans born in the South before the civil rights movement were never issued birth certificates in the first place. Having a “delayed” birth certificate issued requires going through an expensive and lengthy process that does not guarantee success.  But without birth certificates, these African American voters will be unable to get valid IDs.

College students

Under the new law, driver’s licenses will only be accepted as a valid form of ID if they were issued by the state of Pennsylvania. Students who posses licenses from out-of-state or don’t own a driver’s license can use a their student ID cards instead, but only if their cards have expiration dates. This means that certain students won’t be allowed to vote if they show an ID from Penn State, DeSales University, Lafayette College, Cedar Crest College, Temple University, or an other college that does not put expiration dates on student ID cards.

In time, most of the 9% could obtain some form of valid ID from PennDOT. However, the new law was signed less than eight months before the upcoming Presidential election. Eight months is not nearly enough time to make 758,000 people aware of the new law, let alone to process 758,000 applications and then dispatch 758,000 new IDs. In addition, marginalized groups are less likely to hear about the new law in the first place, so that even those who do actually own a valid form of ID (such as a US passport) will be less likely to have it with them on Election Day.

With Obama and Romney closely matched in the Gallup presidential poll, the outcome of the election is expected to depend on swing states like Pennsylvania. Because those groups most affected by the new law are also those who traditionally support Democratic candidates, the law has been criticized as an attempt to disenfranchise Pennsylvania Democrats and give Republicans an edge. In Philadelphia, home to a large portion of Pennsylvania’s Democratic voters, the percentage of voters without valid IDs is around 18%, twice the statewide estimate.

Republicans claim that the new law was established to prevent voter fraud, such as voting under a false name or voting as an illegal immigrant. But by all accounts, voter fraud is extremely rare and has never posed a threat to the outcome of a presidential election. As the Brennan Center for Justice’s report on voter fraud explains:

“Fraud by individual voters is a singularly foolish and ineffective way to attempt to win
an election. Each act of voter fraud in connection with a federal election risks five years in
prison and a $10,000 fine, in addition to any state penalties. In return, it yields at most
one incremental vote. That single extra vote is simply not worth the price.”

In case any doubt remained as to the true motivation behind the new voter ID law, Pennsylvania Republican House Leader Mike Turzai openly announced last month that the law “is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania” in the upcoming election.

Overall, the US has come a long way in terms of voting equality. The 15th and the 19th amendments to the US constitution guarantee every American citizen the right to vote. But as Viviette Applewhite pointed out in her interview, Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law is a step backwards. “There was so [many] rights that we did not have, and now we do have them,” Applewhite said. “And [this law will] take them away from us… and it’ll be right back where it was before.” When asked what she thought of the law, she replied simply, “I think it stinks.”

The ACLU is appealing the new law in court. A hearing is scheduled for July 25th. Meanwhile, civil rights groups are working to spread the word about the new law and prepare voters to meet its requirements. To make sure you will be allowed to vote in November, make sure you bring at least one of the following to the polls with you:


Click here for more information on the new voter ID law. For more details and specific stories about the law, check out the ACLU’s client videos and browse the following articles:

Over 750,000 Pennsylvanians Could Be Disenfranchised By Voter ID Law

Pennsylvania Photo Voter ID Bill is Now Law, HBCUs in the Crosshairs

Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Places Expiration Date on Democracy

PA Voter ID Law Would Keep 93-Year-Old Who Marched With Martin Luther King From Voting

Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania GOP House Majority Leader: Voter ID Will Allow Mitt Romney To Win State


Want to talk about what you’ve learned?

This Thursday July 12th, come to
Three Rivers Community Foundation’s voting rights forum
Let’s Talk! Voting for Survival.

The forum will provide an opportunity for you to find out more about the voting process, to talk with local voting rights activists, and to discuss the new law with other Pennsylvania voters. For more information on the Voting Rights Forum, go to TRCF’s event announcementview the flyer, or visit the Facebook page for the event.

TRCF intern blog posts are written to give a local as well as global perspective on the seven issue areas that TRCF funds. We welcome your input and thoughts on these posts on our Facebook page. If you have a topic that you would like one of our interns to write about please contact us through the website with your suggestions.
Title photo credit: Dan Gleiter
Portrait photo credit: ACLU