The lowball investment is one of the main reasons the initiative failed.
The deadline for registering to vote in Pennsylvania has passed, and we still don’t know how many would-be voters mistakenly believe that they’ll need a photo ID to vote in this year’s general election.
On Oct. 2, the courts ruled that enforcement of the new Pennsylvania law requiring photo ID at the polls would not be enforced before this year’s general election. The problem wasn’t with the concept of tying citizens’ voting rights to their photo ID—a version of the law will likely still go into effect for future elections—but with the state’s hasty, haphazard, lackadaisical implementation. The rules changed so many times since the law passed in March that when a recent field survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, an independent research group, sent volunteers to PennDOT centers to inquire about voter ID requirements, they found that approximately 46 percent of PennDOT employees gave survey volunteers false information.
Such confusion is one of the reasons the courts decided that the state needed more lead time to make such a fundamental change to citizens’ voting practices. Unfortunately, the flow of bad information hasn’t stopped since the decision.
Changes to the state website Votes PA.com in the wake of the court ruling, for example, were so slight that it was mocked on The Rachel Maddow Show. At the time of the decision, the main display ad showed a person holding up a driver’s license alongside the headline “SHOW IT” in big block letters—an image that was already misleading, since alternative, free, Department of State-issued non-license IDs were announced in July and available since the end of August. The small-font text in the image was changed from “Voters are required to show an acceptable photo ID before casting their ballot” to “Voters will be asked, but not required, to show an acceptable photo ID on Election Day.”
The barely-perceptible edit—subsequently tweaked one more time to change “SHOW IT” to “VOTER ID”—couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes or cost more than a few bucks. Which is odd, as there is plenty of money left over in the budget to get the correct message out: The money the state has actually spent on the voter-ID initiative was far less than the estimates given both by legislators that pushed for the law and by left-leaning independent organizations like the PBPC.
The Pennsylvania Department of State’s press secretary, Ron Ruman, told CBS Philadelphia in September that $5 million of federal funds had been allocated to the state for use in informing voters about the new requirements. “That’s all the advertising, the outreach to educate voters, all the public meetings and TV, radio print, and hand-outs,” Ruman elaborated to PW. (Note: Those federal funds, allocated through the Help America Vote Act, are only distributed to states during federal election years—so there won’t be another such windfall until 2016.)
Ruman says the only expense that has been incurred by the Department of State has been the cost of giving out free non-driver’s-license voter IDs, which cost $13.50 per ID to produce. As of Oct. 5, he says, roughly 14,000 of those had been issued. That comes to a total of $189,000; that money came out of a million dollars that was set aside for this purpose in this year’s budget.
According to a PennDOT spokesperson, the total cost to the state to implement the Voter ID law is approximately $509,500 as of Oct. 13: “That includes everything—ID cards, training, signage, etc.”
That’s far less than the $4,315,417 estimate originally attached to the bill back in June 2011. That estimate was calculated by multiplying the number of existing voters without a state-issued ID by $13.50—a fascinating methodology, given Gov. Corbett’s insistent claim that a photo ID requirement would bring more voters to the polls.
In short, the botched effort to enact the Voter ID law this year cost less than expected because such a small percentage of active voters without photo ID were on track to obtain it. So while officials are eager to point out that Pennsylvania—so broke the governor just cut last-resort safety net funds for the disabled—didn’t spend much money on the failed Voter ID initiative, the lowball investment is also the main reason it failed.
“The proponents of the bill didn’t take their obligation seriously, and they tried to do this on the cheap,” says Sharon Ward, the PBPC’s executive director. “And the results, as we have seen, have been disastrous.” Last year, the PBPC estimated that it would cost upward of $11 million in order to effectively pull off photo ID requirement in time for the 2012 election, ensuring that all registered voters who needed IDs would have them.
Ruman doesn’t believe that the voter ID campaign would have been more effective if more money was spent. “We think folks are able to get IDs if they want them. We think they would have been able to get them by November,” he says. “But the judge had concerns about that.”
Two more concerns worth noting: The $5 million in federal dollars and $654,500 in state dollars doesn’t include money spent by counties—the original bill estimated a 30-percent increase in county administration cost. And it doesn’t include any cost borne by the people who tried to comply with the law as it kept changing—such as those who took a precious day off work to stand in line, just to wait for bad information. There’s voting irregularity in Pennsylvania, all right, but it isn’t happening at the polls—it’s happening in the House, where this bill was drafted in the first place.
The Breakdown is written by senior writer Tara Murtha, who regularly reports on urban violence, policy, gender, and any other social-justice issues we can think of.
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