Memo Reveals Agencies Concerned Voter ID Would Disenfranchise Some

Jul 23, 2013

Testimony in the second week of a trial of Pennsylvania's voter identification law is digging into the documentation of how the language of the law was finalized.

Two state agencies suggested in 2011 that the voter ID legislation then making its way through the Legislature should make it easier for elderly and disabled voters to cast absentee ballots.

A memo from the Department of Aging and the Department of State points out the change would provide a way for such people to vote even if they had trouble getting photo ID because of illness or limited mobility.

Pennsylvania requires absentee voters to swear that they are unable to vote at their polling place. Agency secretaries, writing to Gov. Tom Corbett's top aides, wrote that such an oath may not be possible for voters who can make it to their polling places, but have difficulty getting to a PennDOT licensing center "because of illness or physical disability."

The memo suggests loosening the restrictions around the state's absentee ballot as part of the voter ID legislation would be a "good solution to ensure that no qualified elector is disenfranchised because illness or disability prevented him/her from obtaining necessary proof of ID — no matter the specific circumstances involved."

Instead, the voter ID law that was passed and signed allows care facilities, like nursing homes, to issue photo ID valid for voting. Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a spokesman for lawyers defending the law, says the adopted change has the potential to be more wide-reaching. But he says the state doesn't know how many care facilities are providing photo IDs.

"We've done outreach, and Department of Aging and other agencies have worked to encourage," Hagen-Frederiksen said. "But we can't compel any of these facilities to produce an ID any more than we can compel an individual to register to vote or compel an individual to go to the polls on Election Day."

Lawyers challenging voter ID say the memo sent to the governor's office shows the Corbett administration was indifferent to the possibility voters would be disenfranchised under voter ID.

Rebecca Oyler, former policy director for the Department of State, testified that state agencies had done "everything that we see as reasonable" to make valid voting ID "broadly available" and educate voters about it.

"I think that anybody who wants to get an ID can choose to get one," said Oyler.

Michael Rubin, among the lawyers challenging the law, said her testimony amounts to blaming voters for not being able to vote if they can't get valid photo ID.

"That is, sort of, in a nutshell, what a lot of this case is about: a law that on its face is very restrictive, that was intentionally restrictive. Time and again, the Department of State said, 'you should make it less restrictive,' and (the administration) chose to make it more restrictive," Rubin said.

The state has not yet begun presenting its case in the trial over the law's constitutionality.