Voter ID passes Pa. Senate

HARRISBURG -- Senate Democrats spoke for hours on Wednesday against a proposal requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.

When that didn't stop their chamber from approving the legislation, sending it on to a supportive House, the Democrats said they would challenge a successful law in court.

The state Senate rejected a series of Democratic amendments before passing the voter identification bill 26-23, with three Republicans joining the Democrats in opposition. Democrats had tried to add new forms of acceptable identification and postpone the requirement until after the November elections.

Gov. Tom Corbett supports requiring voters to show photo identification, and a spokesman for House Republicans said he expects the House to pass the bill in its current form. Senate committees amended the bill to include photo identification cards issued by Pennsylvania universities, nursing homes, counties and municipalities, as well as those issued by the state and federal governments.

Moments after the bill passed, Senate Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania separately said they intend to file legal challenges to the photo identification requirement. Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, said his caucus will go to court unless the bill is changed in the House to allay the concerns of Democrats.

"If that does not happen, we will find ourselves in court to find some way to prevent this law from taking place and taking effect," Mr. Williams said.

Witold Walczak, legal director for the state's ACLU chapter, said his organization also plans to challenge the law to prevent it affecting an election.

The bill requires poll workers to ask voters at the primary elections next month for photo identification, but voters without an acceptable document could still vote. The requirement would take full effect for the general elections in November.

Current law requires voters to show identification only the first time they vote at a polling location. Republicans supporting the bill argue state residents worrying about electoral fraud would be reassured by a requirement that voters verify their identity.

"This bill is a simple, common sense measure to protect the integrity of the voting process, which is the very foundation of our democracy," Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said. "It's important to note that no voter will be turned away from the polls on election day."

Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele said in an interview before the Senate debate that the legislation would build confidence among citizens that elections are conducted fairly.

"The reason people don't have confidence is because they think there's fraud," she said. "This would eliminate or dramatically reduce anyone thinking that there are people voting illegally in Pennsylvania."

Ms. Aichele said her office knows of reports of voter fraud in Pennsylvania but has no overall measure of its occurrence.

Democrats argued that until supporters can show proof of voter fraud, they should not spend money trying to stop it. They argued the measure is intended instead to suppress voting by members of groups that typically vote Democratic and disproportionately lack official photo identification.

"This is simply a solution in search of a problem," said Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline. "It will alienate many of our citizens, including the poor, elderly and minorities."

The bill provides for free photo identification cards for people without one. Voters who show up at the polls without identification would be allowed to cast provisional ballots but would have to provide proof of their identity within six days. Opponents argued provisional voting would still place a hardship on people who lack the resources to obtain proof of identity or transport that documentation to their county board of elections.

"[Poor people] are already struggling enough," said Sen. Shirley Kitchen, D-Philadelphia.

The Senate Democrats said they would argue in court that the photo ID proposal illegally creates different classes of voters.

Mr. Walczak, of the ACLU, said implementing a new identification requirement in November, with presidential candidates on the ballot, would make the elections unworkable.

"If this is allowed to go forward, and especially if it's being implemented for the first time at the general election, Pennsylvania will be the Florida of 2000 in this election," he said.

Karen Langley: or 717-787-2141.

First Published 2012-03-07 23:37:45