Something big is happening in Philadelphia ahead of this fall’s presidential election – the first in the state since a stringent new Voter ID law was passed earlier this year – although people there concerned about it are having a maddeningly hard time putting their finger on the precise size of the problem. The city has just over 1 million registered voters. About 800,000 of them are considered "active."
"And about a third of them are on one of these two lists as potentially having ID problems," says Tom Boyer. He's a former journalist and computer scientist living in Philadelphia who has gotten involved in analyzing the potential impacts of Pennsylvania’s controversial law, which is now in the throes of a legal challenge. Boyer suspects that something historically bad could happen if the law isn’t overturned, and not enough people are talking about it.
The Pennsylvania Department of State recently released two lists of the Pennsylvania residents whose state IDs have expired since last November (and thus can’t be used to verify their identity at the polls this fall), as well as a list of the active voters whose names don’t match up with the PennDOT database as currently having an ID. This second list is terribly sloppy (one database spells names like McCormack as “Mc Cormack,” and there's all kinds of chaos with hyphens and apostrophes). But nonetheless, the best official data available suggests that as many as 280,000 voters in Philadelphia may need to get an ID between now and November to have their votes counted.
"I just think that’s a staggering number," Boyer says. "Even if it’s half of 280,000, that’s an incredible number. Even if it’s a quarter, it’s a huge number."
Here's another way to look at it: The state's statistics show that about 9 percent of registered voters in the state are without current PennDOT IDs. In Philadelphia, that number is 18 percent. (Other analyses have put it even higher.)
"The disparate impact is stunning," says Stephanie Singer, the chairwoman of Philadelphia’s City Commission. Philadelphia is both a city and a county. The next closest county potentially has 12 percent of voters who may have ID problems. "It’s not that there’s a gradation, and Philadelphia is at one end of it," Singer says. "It’s that there’s Philadelphia – and then there’s the rest of the state."
Researchers have long warned that voter ID laws disproportionately affect – and potentially disenfranchise – minorities, the poor, young people and the elderly (groups, as many have noted, that tend to lean Democratic). In Pennsylvania, all of this data suggests that the law there may also fall heavily on the state’s largest urban population. And Singer suspects this is no accident.
"I really believe that is the intent of the law: to suppress the vote in Philadelphia," she says.
This would of course dramatically alter the dynamic in a presidential swing state. In 2008, 83 percent of voters in Philadelphia voted for Barack Obama. As Democratic consultant James Carville famously put it years before then: "Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between."
Philadelphia, however, is now in a particularly unusual situation. Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, which has been following and researching these laws, says that voter ID restrictions are not usually seen as a policy issue with a distinct urban/rural divide. If anything, would-be voters who live in rural areas with poor transportation and scant access to motor vehicle offices often have the hardest time obtaining identification. The Brennan Center published a report in July concluding that nearly 500,000 eligible voters in the 10 states with the most restrictive new ID laws (including Pennsylvania) live in households without vehicles and that are located farther than 10 miles from the nearest ID-issuing office that stays open more than two days a week. If these voters don’t currently have IDs, they will likely have a hard time obtaining them. And almost all of these people, the Brennan Center report concluded, live in rural areas.
But while access to transportation is a key part of this story, it looks very different in Philadelphia. Would-be voters there might have better access to the DMV, but they're less likely to have driver's licenses in the first place because it's so much easier to live in Philadelphia than in rural areas (or even the suburbs) without a car. Singer herself doesn’t own a car.
"If you were to go to D.C. or New York and impose a voter ID law, you’d probably see huge sections of the population running into trouble with expired IDs because people don’t drive," Gaskins says. "Whether or not something like this would actually pass there is a different issue."
Herein lies the unique quandary in Philadelphia. It is a large, left-leaning city, with the public transportation system of an old Northeastern metro area built in the era before cars. But it happens, right now, to be located in a state with a Republican-controlled legislature. There are plenty of older cities in America where large numbers of people might not have driver's licenses. But most of those cities, as Gaskins points out, are in solidly blue states where it’s highly unlikely that voter ID laws would pass in the first place. This is also true of places like Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Look, instead, at the nine other states that the Brennan Center studied: Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The Northeastern States (Rhode Island and New Hampshire) don’t have major cities on the scale of Philadelphia, and they both have high driver’s license penetration. And the states outside of the Northeast (particularly Sun Belt states like Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas) are home to new, auto-oriented cities where it’s much harder to get by without a car.
Philadelphia happens to sit at the crux of these unusual demographics, as a Democratic city where you don’t need a car in a Republican state (for now). Of course, to further heighten the stakes, it’s also in a political battleground for 2012. These dynamics don’t just play out between Philadelphia and the rest of the state, but between Philadelphia proper and its suburbs.
"If you’re the normal suburban guy with the SUV and the three-car garage, you’re going to have a driver’s license, and you probably have registered to vote, [under] Motor Voter," Boyer says. "You’re home-free, you have nothing to worry about. But people who live in cities often don’t drive."
Within Philadelphia, the impact also appears to be spread unevenly, with the law likely to affect black and Hispanic voters at a much higher rate than whites, according to an analysis conducted by Tamara Manik-Perlman, of Philadelphia data-analysis and mapping firm Azavea.
"One of the issues I find most interesting and difficult to think about at this point is: why is this law so popular with so many people?" Singer says. "Because it really is. The man on the street loves this law and is like, 'Come on, I have an ID, everyone else has an ID, get over it. Get your ID. What’s the big deal?'"
If it does turn out that tens of thousands of voters in Philadelphia need to do this over the next two months, the city will have a tremendous time accommodating them all. And the law has already created widespread confusion, even among voter advocates who aren't sure if they should be devoting their time now to fighting the legislation or educating voters about it.
"I don’t know if this has ever happened in Philadelphia’s history to have this massive, massive number of voters just taken out of the equation," Boyer says. There is still a chance the law will be struck down in court. But it may be too late to undo all of the confusion.
"The cleverness of it is impressive, because even if it's overturned, it’s probably going to affect turnout," Boyer says. "If it’s not overturned and Philadelphia turnout is down 25 percent, well, Fox News is going to say, 'Gee they just don’t like Obama in Philadelphia anymore. They didn’t turn out for him.' And you’ll never be able to prove that it’s Voter ID that led to this."
Top image: Voters enter a polling place in Pittsburgh's Hill District during the Pennsylvania primary in 2008. (Jason Cohn/Reuters)