Professor Christopher Seaman on Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law
As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hears arguments on Act 18, Pennsylvania’s voter identification law, the Justices should consider that thousands of citizens may be adversely affected in the exercise of their fundamental right to vote — a number much greater than the handful of documented cases of inperson voter fraud nationwide.
In its decision last month declining to block Act 18’s enforcement, the Commonwealth Court estimated that “somewhat more than 1 percent and significantly less than 9 percent” of registered Pennsylvania voters lacked proper identification.
Even if the lower figure is correct, tens of thousands of people — many of whom have voted without impediment in previous elections — are in danger of not meeting the law’s requirements.
And Act 18 disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable members of society.
Evidence presented in court showed that the elderly, low-income households and persons without a high school degree are significantly less likely to possess a valid form of photo ID under Act 18. These same populations also are less likely to have the underlying documents required to obtain a photo ID from PennDOT — a birth certificate (with raised seal if born out of state); valid U.S. passport or certificate of U.S. citizenship; a Social Security card; and two forms of proof of residency.
A similar voter ID law in Texas recently was blocked by a federal court because it disproportionately affected poor and minority voters.
Proponents of voter ID laws frequently assert that they are needed to prevent widespread inperson voter fraud. But there is little hard proof to support their claim.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found a vanishingly small rate of improper in-person voting — less than 0.0005 percent — in several battleground states during the hotly contested 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
In other words, a person’s chance of being struck by lightning is several times greater than being fraudulently impersonated at the polling station.
Indeed, state officials defending Act 18 in court admitted that they were not aware of a single verified incident of fraudulent voter impersonation anywhere in the commonwealth.
In its decision, the Commonwealth Court concluded that instead of preventing Act 18’s enforcement statewide, persons adversely affected by the photo ID requirement could bring individual challenges to the law. But this is a hollow remedy. Lawsuits are difficult and expensive, and a person who is unable to obtain photo ID is highly unlikely to have the resources needed to pursue such a claim.
In sum, the number of Pennsylvanians potentially disenfranchised by Act 18 will far exceed any fraudulent voter impersonation that might occur in the law’s absence.
Hopefully the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will recognize the deleterious nature of Act 18 and enjoin it.
Christopher B. Seaman, a native of Clearfield, is an assistant professor of law at Washington and Lee University School of Law.