Voter ID on Trial: Philadelphia Election Worker Fears "Chaos"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 1 2012 1:41 PM

Voter ID on Trial: Philadelphia Election Worker Fears "Chaos"

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- I wrote a little earlier today about how hard it's been for the state to defend its new voter ID law. There was a new example of that in the final set of witness testimonies, which brought a leader of the League of Women Voters and a Philadelphia city commissioner into the room to talk about how impossible it would be to educate all eligable voters on the new rules.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The LWV witnesses haven't added too much to the petitioners' case, and the only tough question to them from the state was about their political activism. But the city commissioner, Jorge Santana, poured forth with details about the state's "soft roll-out" of voter ID. The April 22 primary (for president and lower constitutional offices) was supposed to be a hassle-free test. Voters who showed up to vote, but lacked ID, were let into the polls but given fliers warning them of what they'd need for the fall.

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And that's why Santana got worried. At least one-fifth of city voters were getting caught unaware, lacking the right ID. He was worried about "chaos" on election day, with the number of voters requesting provisional ballots quadrupling or quintupling from 2008. Since provisional ballots have to be verified with ID within six days, even a rigorous effort to get those ballots out there wouldn't save every vote. And this is a key argument against the law. The state's not ready for the "chaos."

One of the petitioners' attorneys asked Santana whether the trial, and possible injunction, would help or hurt.

"If this court were to decide that the law was unconstitutional," she asked, "but then the Supreme Court decided that the law was constitutional, how would..."

The state's attorneys objected.

"Actually," said Judge Robert Simpson, who's overseeing the case, "this is a useful question." He allowed it.

"For our purposes," said Santana, "We don't have a plan B. We are working on the assumption that the law won't be overturned... but it would definitely relieve a lot of pressure."

Then came cross-examination, when the state's oddly inept defense re-emerged.

"Wouldn't you agree with me," asked state attorney Kevin Schmidt, "that this is really just speculative, about what will happen on election day. Is that correct?"

"No," said Santana. "It's not correct. We have a basis of experience from our elections, and we have evidence of concern from judges of elections and participants in elections currently, questions that are being raised now."

Schmidt's question had backfired, so he asked it again. "So... you're saying that this is a new experience," he started.

"No," said Santana. "I'm actually basing my testimony not on speculation, but on concerns that have already been made, and on issues that came up during the soft roll-out."

The defense recovered somewhat when Schmidt asked whether Santana was for or against the law, and the election worker admitted that he didn't like it. But the reasons why he didn't like it had been established, quite strongly.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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