Joined by representatives from a variety of voter and civil rights groups—among them the League of Women Voters, VOTEPA, the ACLU and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh—Black Political Empowerment Project Chair Tim Stevens called for members of the state Senate to vote down the voter ID bill, which they were due to consider for the first time the following day.

VOTER SUPPRESSION—Joined by members of several voter and civil rights groups, Black Political Empowerment Project Chair Tim Stevens calls for a “no” vote on new state voter ID legislation. (Photo by Gail Manker)

Stopping short of calling House Bill 934 racist, at a Dec. 12 press conference at the Hill House Association, Stevens nevertheless referred to it as a “voter suppression bill” and said it would diminish the number of African-Americans, youth and elderly participating in elections.

“The mission of the Black Political Empowerment Project, since its inception, is summarized in these powerful words: ‘It’s a lifetime commitment that African-Americans vote in each and every election,’” he said. “This bill, if passed and signed into law, will have just the opposite effect. No one can say, in good conscience, that the passage of this bill will encourage voter turnout for anyone.”

Rick Adams, co-convener of the western Pennsylvania Black Political Assembly, was a bit more forceful.

“It is an absurdity and abomination that 46 years after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and many other states would be erecting barriers to impede citizens in their ability to vote,” he said. “We are moving in the wrong direction. What states ought to be doing is enacting election day/ same day voter registration and universal registration of all US citizens with purging occurring only upon death.”

The State House passed HB 934 June 23. Should the Senate also pass it, Pennsylvania would become the 32nd state to approve a tougher voter ID law in the last decade. This bill, like those passed in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin, would require voters to present a current government-issued photo ID, which includes drivers license, to vote.

“Currently 25 percent of African-Americans do not have government-sponsored photo ID,” said Stevens. “In our opinion, that is a significant percentage of African-American voters who would be negatively impacted by the passage of HB934. According to our sources, more that 10 percent of all citizens of Pennsylvania fall into this category.

But even as the press conference was underway, the Senate State Government Committee approved the bill after lengthening the list of approved IDs. In addition to current, government-issued photo IDs, acceptable documents would now also include expired government IDs, university and college photo IDs and those issued by personal care and nursing facilities.

The bill was proposed in an effort to curb voter fraud, but both Stevens and Arlene Levy from the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh cited a report by the Pennsylvania County Commissioners saying it’s a costly solution to “a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“The nonpartisan Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center estimated that in order to meet the legislative requirements and avoid potential litigation, the first year cost for a voter identification program would be approximately $11 million to $12 million,” she said. “The General Assembly should instead focus on a problem that does exist—electronic voting machines that may not be secure or accurate and do not have a voter-verified paper record.”

Committee member Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, voted no on the measure.

“There’s not been anyone, including the governor, who has presented to us a crisis of fraudulent voting,” he said.

The bill has now been referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it must be approved before it can receive a floor vote. If it reaches Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk by the beginning of February, the changes would be in place for next year’s general election, and, at least, practiced in the April 24 primary elections.

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