Off the Cuff: April 2006

Let me refresh your memory on a sorry episode that took place in this city a few weeks ago, something you’ve probably forgotten because our so-called leaders — political and otherwise — had virtually nothing to say about it. It concerns a little problem called voter fraud.

Ed Rendell swept into town in late February all hot and bothered about a bill passed by the state legislature that would, he said, “disenfranchise” a number of voters in Philadelphia. His problem was that the state legislature decided it was time that voters be required to present identification before they cast a ballot in Pennsylvania; what this would ensure — and here’s where the legislature was really insensitive — is that voters actually exist before they’re allowed to fill out a ballot. Ed Rendell seems to have a different idea of what’s fair.

But that just plays into Philadelphia’s reputation for corruption. We all know that the city, in all its comeback glory, still has many problems. Front and center is corruption. Take a look at some quite interesting numbers: The city has just over a million voting-age residents, and nearly a million registered voters. So apparently almost every person eligible to vote in the City of Brotherly Love has signed up to do so; according to the Census Bureau, in the rest of the country, fewer than two-thirds of all eligible voters are actually registered. Since 1995, after the National Voter Registration Act allowed citizens to register to vote by mail, Philadelphia has lost five percent of its population, while the number of registered voters increased more than 20 percent.

My, how civic-minded we are!

Let’s go back to the ’04 presidential election. John Kerry got 4.14 votes for every Bush vote in Philadelphia, a city that is, of course, heavily Democratic. But 4-to-1 is astounding; by comparison, heavily Democratic Broward County, Florida, voted for Kerry by only a 2-to-1 margin, and heavily Democratic Cook County, Illinois, gave the nod to Kerry by a 2.5-to-1 ratio. Moreover, more than 60 percent of our registered voters made it to the polls; that, too, is really doing our civic duty.

Here’s why those numbers are so skewed: In Pennsylvania, voters are required to show identification only the first time they vote. Thereafter, anyone can go to a polling place, announce that he is John Doe, and, as long as a John Doe is registered, sign that name and vote. The legislature wanted to fix the problem by requiring an ID to prove, as 24 states now do, that a person actually is John Doe before he votes.

No way, said Ed Rendell, who has promised to veto the legislature’s bill. In a speech in front of the Constitution Center, and repeated hours later in Pittsburgh, the former mayor said that this would be unfair to poor people, the elderly and the infirm.

Clearly, the Governor is taking the challenge from Lynn Swann seriously. I would think Ed Rendell would want honest elections. Perhaps he feels he needs a slant in his direction next fall. But what he’s doing is undermining all the state’s voters. Every phony vote cast in Philadelphia negates an honest vote cast anywhere else. What really galls me is that virtually no one seems upset by that. At a time when the world’s opinion of our city is supposedly changing, what I still see in this case is the Philadelphia of the last century, the one that is “corrupt and contented.” I’m sure you’re sick and tired of having that old Lincoln Steffens quote trotted out when it comes to describing politics in Philadelphia. So am I.