Pennsylvania's Identity Crisis: Rushed Implementation of Voter ID Law Putting Voting Rights at Risk

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Executive Summary

Pennsylvania is one of several states that have taken action over the past decade to impose new requirements on voters seeking to cast a ballot. Pennsylvania’s new law, enacted in March 2012, is one of the nation’s most demanding voter ID laws, resulting in large numbers of eligible voters having to secure new identification.

The U.S. Supreme Court has established that state voter ID laws may be constitutional if they meet specific requirements. Chief among these are that voter ID is available free to voters who do not have acceptable identification and that securing an ID does not place an undue burden on voters.

In this report, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center (PBPC) has documented the experience that voters would have when seeking to obtain an ID through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), the agency responsible for issuing the free ID. PBPC recruited volunteers who made 47 visits to 43 PennDOT offices in 28 counties to observe how the law was being implemented. The 43 offices in our sample are representative of the geographical distribution of all PennDOT offices issuing non-driver photo ID and serve 73% of Pennsylvania’s population.

Volunteers were asked to observe if signage was visible, if documents necessary to obtain a free ID were readily available, and if the staff they encountered were familiar with the request for an ID and able to direct them appropriately. Since access to a free ID is critical to the constitutionality of the law, we asked voters to indicate if PennDOT staff volunteered information that an ID could be obtained for free.

We also looked at the location and hours of operation of PennDOT driver’s license centers, which are the primary point of contact for most voters.

Our findings:

  • In only 13% of observations was there signage in the reception area indicating a voter ID could be obtained. In almost half the visits, neither signs nor written information was observed.
  • While most PennDOT staff encountered by our volunteers were familiar with the request for voter ID, in nearly half the visits individuals were given incomplete or inaccurate information.
  • Few PennDOT staff volunteered that a voter ID could be acquired for free, and in three in 10 cases, volunteers were told incorrectly that they would have to pay.
  • The standard form for obtaining a non-photo ID does not indicate that it is available for free to certain voters, and a second form required to get the ID was not readily available.
  • The number and hours of operation of PennDOT offices are quite limited. There are 71 driver’s license centers in all of Pennsylvania, and nine counties do not have any centers at all. In an additional 20 counties, the driver’s license center is open three days a week or less.
  • One in five volunteers had to return a second time because the Driver License center or Photo License center was closed.

Recent reports from the Department of State indicate that many more individuals may lack appropriate ID than initially expected and most will have to turn to PennDOT to secure an ID – whether it is a standard non-driver ID or a new Department of State voter ID that will be available in late August. In either case, it is incumbent on both agencies to ensure the process works smoothly. Based on the observations of our volunteers, currently it does not.

Pennsylvania’s voter ID law is restrictive and complicated to implement for Pennsylvania’s large population in such a short period of time. The process to secure identification is not well established, having undergone numerous changes in the four months since the law was enacted. It is at this time unclear whether the Commonwealth has the ability to ensure ID is available to all who need it by the November election. Given the consequence – disenfranchising Pennsylvania voters – the Commonwealth should consider delaying the law until its procedures are more firmly established and its processes improve.

To make voter identification more readily available, the Commonwealth should expand the number of sites where voting ID can be obtained, provide mobile ID units for voters who lack transportation, provide clear, uniform information across all sites, improve signage and implement training of staff responsible for issuing ID.

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If the implementation of this law falls short, the consequences are significant – the disenfranchising of a larger number of Pennsylvania voters. In light of that, the Commonwealth should consider delaying the law until its procedures are more firmly established and its processes improve.

We also recommend that PennDOT:

  • Change the DL-54A to clearly state that individuals applying for ID for voting purposes can obtain it for free.
  • Expand hours of operation so appropriate ID can be obtained five days a week at all locations.
  • Provide clear signage and informational material indicating that ID can be obtained and is available for free, and ensure all information is available in multiple languages.
  • Ensure that all appropriate forms are readily available and uniformly issued to those seeking an ID for voting purposes.
  • Publish weekly statistics on the number of photo IDs issued to individuals 17 and over at all locations and the number of free IDs issued.
  • Institute rigorous training for PennDOT workers to ensure familiarity with procedures and understand their role in protecting Pennsylvanians right to vote.