Victory Lab: Are Democratic Concerns About the Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Overblown?

The new science of winning campaigns.
Sept. 13 2012 12:34 PM

Let’s Get You a License

How Democratic operatives are working to ensure that likely Obama voters in Pennsylvania have proper ID by November.

Voters show identification as they sign in to vote during the Republican primary election.
Voters show ID as they sign in to vote during the primary election in April in Philadelphia.

Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images.

PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania Democrats may be publicly cheering arguments made Thursday in the state Supreme Court to overturn a new law requiring voters to furnish photo identification, but party operatives are continuing their preparations for a November in which the law remains on the books. Many labor unions and elected officials have undertaken educational initiatives to inform voters about the consequences of the new law, but the Pennsylvania Democratic Party may have the most systematic effort already in place: a data-intensive program to identify Obama supporters who would be disenfranchised by the law and arrange for them to acquire replacement IDs.

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

In July, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation compared the state’s voter registration rolls with its own list of those who had been issued drivers licenses or state nondriver IDs.  More than 758,000 voters, the department found, did not have an official ID associated with the name and address at which they were registered. Immediate reaction to the department’s report was furious, especially from opponents of the new law who claimed it proved nearly one-tenth of those registered in the state would be unqualified to vote in November. At the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, however, tacticians assumed the number reflected sloppy record keeping, and set out to make their own assessment of the law’s electoral impact. "How big a problem is this?" asks Elena Cross, a staffer who oversees the party’s voter file.

Cross took the 758,000 names and matched them against a list of voters that statistical models had picked out as strong Democrats or Obama supporters, or those very likely to turn out to vote regardless of their partisan intensity. The fraction of names that overlapped—in other words, potential Democratic targets for persuasion and turnout—represented two distinct pools of voters. One was older, urban African-American women, who were reliable voters but had never acquired a driver’s license. The other was transient younger residents, who may not be habitual voters but if they did cast a ballot in November were predicted to go overwhelmingly for Obama.

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Democratic county organizations that would normally use the summer to identify supporters were instead provided lists of targets from the non-ID universe to call. From phone banks, volunteers worked through a script that probed voters about what types of identification card they carried. Despite a relatively low completion rate—voters seemed to get spooked by strangers asking about their documents—state party officials say they have now successfully reached about 90,000 of their targets.

The interviews are confirming suspicions that many of the 758,000 on the state list are in fact eligible to vote in November. Many had been included on the ineligible list because there was an imprecise name match: a nickname or middle initial used on a voter registration form and not a license or one record containing a maiden name and the other a married variant. Callers also reached voters who said they had a passport, military, student, or assisted-living facility ID that passes muster at the polls even under the new law.

As data comes back from phone banks, Cross sorts voters into different buckets based on urgency. Students who attend colleges and universities known to be in the process of issuing newly redesigned cards that include photos and expiration dates, which the law requires for voter identification, are not a big worry at the moment. Those who have nonmatching names on their different documents are also considered a low priority; party officials expect such voters not to be challenged at the polls, and if so, lawyers can fight for their eligibility there. "Dealing with these people is not the same priority as people who have no ID,” says Cross.

For voters with no valid picture ID whatsoever, party tacticians are looking to take advantage of a new ID that state officials have created solely for voting purposes. (A $13.50 ID fee is waived for voters who have no other valid documentation.) They can only be acquired in person at driver’s license centers that are more far-flung than polling places; there are five in Philadelphia, but some counties have none at all. As a result, party tacticians are focusing on urban areas where voters are packed closely enough together to organize shared rides that will keep trip time to minimum. "Is there a place where we can group enough people together and get them all in a van?" asks Cross.

This of course looks a lot like what campaigns normally do for immobile voters before Election Day or for hardier ones when bad weather strikes. One major challenge is that the driver’s license centers keep shorter hours than polling places, forcing organizers to make advance arrangements with voters who have jobs to shuttle them during the work day. On the bright side, say party officials, it serves as a dry run for the get-out-the-vote efforts they will administer on behalf of the Democratic ticket in November, and it helps to expose weaknesses in data and logistics earlier than they would normally be detected. "It's a more complicated, harder GOTV program,” says Cross.