Governor Corbett Puts a Gag on Philadelphia

How Harrisburg Republicans are helping Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania.

Harrisburg’s club of mostly white rural legislators have rarely hidden the contempt they have for Philadelphia. But last week’s news that 18 percent of the city’s voters might be disenfranchised by the state’s new voter ID law—news that, fittingly, hit the newspapers on Independence Day—clarified what had previously only been a foggy notion:

Gov. Corbett and his allies aren’t just trying to inconvenience a few Democrats on Election Day. They’re trying to keep Philadelphia itself from making a difference in the state’s politics.

In retrospect, it should’ve been obvious. Take a look, after all, at the people who are eligible to vote under the state’s new law:

  • Anybody with a driver’s license, or a more generic state-issued photo ID
  • Anybody with a photo ID identifying them as an employee of local, state, or federal government.
  • Anybody with a college photo ID
  • Anybody with a military photo ID
  • And anybody with a photo ID identifying them as a resident of a state nursing home.

Notice who that leaves out? The urban poor.

And where’s the biggest concentration of urban poor in the state of Pennsylvania? Philadelphia.

Let’s clarify: If you’re poor in Philadelphia, there’s a good chance you’ve never needed a driver’s license. (Cars are expensive to maintain and park; and there’s a functioning public transit system here.) There’s a good chance you’ve never been to college. There’s a good chance, generally, that you’ve never needed to obtain any of the types of identification needed to vote.

And no, those same rules don’t apply to poor people in the rural parts of Pennsylvania. There is no SEPTA service in the nether regions of the state: Everybody, rich and poor, needs a car to get around. That means they need those licenses.

On the flip side, there’s plenty of middle-class Philadelphians who grew up never getting behind the wheel of a car. But among the younger generations, at least, most of them have been to college. So they’re covered.

Which means, ultimately, that the law could not have been more perfectly crafted to keep Philadelphia—and its huge population of impoverished city-dwellers—from making a difference in the state’s elections.

That’s pretty much what has happened: The 18 percent of city voters who might be ineligible to vote doubles the statewide average. The question is: Does anybody really believe that’s a coincidence? A quirk of fate? A mere byproduct of a well-intentioned process?

No. You don’t accidentally strip one-fifth of the voters from the rolls in one of America’s biggest cities. And if it is an accident, you go back and fix it right away. Instead, Gov. Corbett is digging in his heels. “This will help detect and deter illegal voting,” the governor’s spokesperson said in an email to reporters.

You’ve got to hand it to Republicans: They often say that government solutions are worse than the problems they attempt to solve. In this case, they’re working hard to prove that maxim—especially since the occasional real-world instances of voter fraud in the state probably won’t be solved by the new law. The only reason to fix what’s not broken is to make it break in your direction.

Which is why the state GOP targeted Philadelphia. We’re the city that often makes the difference in the state’s close elections. In 2008, for example, President Obama carried Pennsylvania by 620,000 votes—and 478,000 votes of that margin of victory came from Philadelphia. In 2004, John Kerry’s narrower victory in Pennsylvania was entirely due to the fact that he, too, carried Philadelphia by more than 400,000 votes.

Strip the city’s voters from the rolls—or a good chunk of them, anyway—and suddenly Pennsylvania might truly be a swing state again. It might even swing Republican.

It’s true that anybody can go get a state photo ID to be eligible to vote. But getting that ID the first time is actually kind of hard: You need to have your official birth certificate with a raised seal, your Social Security card, plus two documents proving your residence. Getting my first driver’s license in this state was one of the biggest pain-in-the-butt bureaucratic nightmares I’ve ever faced: It took preparation and persistence. The obstacles might be enough to keep many Philadelphia voters from bothering with the whole mess.

Which is the real aim of the law, of course. Mitt Romney can only win Pennsylvania if Philadelphia loses its voice. That’s exactly what Gov. Corbett and Harrisburg Republicans are about to accomplish—by carefully targeting the urban poor.