An effort to fight voting fraud could cost state taxpayers millions, though it’s a price some lawmakers are willing to pay.
New requirements intended to cut down on fraudulent voters were passed by the House State Government Committee on May 9 and will head to the House for a final vote. The bill would require voters to show official photo identification each time they go to their polling place to cast a ballot. Voters now have to provide identification only the first time they vote at a specific polling place.
The new requirement would not take effect until the primary elections in the spring of 2012, unless there is a special election scheduled for earlier in 2012.
An amendment added to the bill May 9 would allow any voter who did not have a valid photo ID to get one from the state Department of Transportation at no charge. Instead, the state would pick up the tab on the identification cards to allow all voters to comply with the new law.
Absentee ballots would be counted without the identification requirement, as long as the signature on the ballot’s envelop matches the signature on the voter rolls and the county board of election certifies that the voter did not cast more than one ballot.
Based on a preliminary fiscal evaluation, Democrats said the provision would cost more than $10 million, not including the expenses incurred by the state to advertise the new rules so all voters are aware of the requirements.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, the sponsor of the bill, defended the additional cost.
“Ensuring that we have integrity in our elections is something we should ensure,” Metcalfe said. “The expenditure is fully acceptable to the majority of my constituents.”
A formal cost estimate will be made by the House Appropriations Committee at a later date.
Since voters who do not have a valid driver's license or other federal or state photo identification would have to go to a drivers’ license center in order to obtain one, some members of the committee said the rule would restrict voting.
State Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, said the new rules would be particularly difficult for seniors and those living in rural parts of the state.
“That is an extra trip we don’t currently require for someone to exercise their franchise to vote,” Samuelson. “It seems like there’s additional burdens we’re putting on people for the right to vote.”
“Most of us believe the current process is irresponsible,” Metcalfe said. “With any right you to have to have a degree of responsibility.”
State Rep. Tom Creighton, R-Lancaster, said it was hard to believe voters would not agree with the bill despite the added rules.
“I think people that value the rights that we have in this country don’t have a problem taking that extra step,” Creighton said. “I don’t think it’s asking that much, considering what is at stake here.”
A number of Democratic amendments were voted down by the Republican-controlled committee. The bill passed to the House with a straight party-line vote of 15-9.
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania sent a letter to lawmakers last month calling the bill “a solution in search of a problem,” a sentiment echoed by several Democratic lawmakers on Monday.
State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, said the bill would result in thousands of Pennsylvanians being disenfranchised while costing the state money when it could not afford it.
“This is worse than a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Vitali said. “This is a very cynical attempt to suppress a person’s very basic constitutional right to vote.”
Vitali said there had been only four convictions of voters misrepresenting themselves in Pennsylvania since 2008, rendering the new requirements unnecessary. Republicans on the committee admitted the evidence of voter fraud was generally “anecdotal” but said it required action anyway.
State Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware, said the number of convictions for voter fraud does not accurately reflect the scope of the problem and applauded the legislation.
“The most important thing we can do in this country to eliminate voter fraud is to (require) IDs when people vote,” said Barrar, pointing to the conclusions of the Federal Election Reform Commission. “There is nothing, in my opinion, more essential to safeguarding the election process.”
Barrar pushed a similar measure in 2005, which made it to the desk of Gov. Ed Rendell, but was vetoed. He said the result would be different this time with Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in the state’s top office.
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said the bill would receive a floor vote, but the caucus’ first priority was passing an on-time, balanced state budget.