By Nick Hildebrand
It's pretty rare when there's anything in my inbox about state Sen. Bob Robbins, so when an email popped up last Thursday with the Salem Township Republican's name in the subject line, I was intrigued.
It was a news release from Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans President Jean Friday criticizing Robbins' vote in favor of a bill that will require voters to produce a photo ID at the polls. Mrs. Friday noted that politicians regularly pay lip service to protecting the interests of senior citizens, who also happen to be very reliable voters, and said the bill will make it harder for many seasoned citizens, who, because of age and infirmity, don't have driver's licenses, passports, nursing home or student IDs, to vote.
Now I didn't just fall off the turnip truck, so I understand that the Alliance, a non-profit, "non-partisan" organization that "advocates" for retirees, is really a lobbying group that may or may not speak for the state's elderly population. The fact that Mrs. Friday's message came via what one older caller to this newspaper once described as a "www-dot machine" instead of a handwritten note on undersized stationary decorated with flowers was another dead giveaway that we're not dealing with my maiden great aunt and the ladies in her bridge club.
When the voter ID bill was proposed last year, The Herald did a story on local reaction to the bill.
Mercer County elections officials told us it would end up costing the county money and create hassles at the polls as nominally-paid elections workers check IDs and voters who never had to produce anything more than a voter registration card argue with them about the requirement. As some of us like to say about western Pennsylvania: We don't resist change, we resent it.
Supporters of the bill -- which also include state Reps. Dick Stevenson, Grove City, and Michele Brooks, Jamestown -- say that the election system is vulnerable to fraud because voters aren't required in most cases to show anything but their smiling faces to cast a ballot.
The argument they most commonly make is that producing a photo ID is required to conduct any number of mundane transactions - buying a drink, cashing a check or renting a movie are the standard examples - and requiring the same for voting, arguably more important than any of those activities, is a common sense way to protect the integrity of the polls.
That's a load of bunk, as is usually the case when "common sense" is invoked as the rationale for anything in the political realm. And like just about any question that arises in that realm, there's a ton of misinformation being spread around, including the email from Mrs. Friday. She claims that "tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands" of seniors could be left out in the electoral cold.
The state's secretary of state says it's more like 80,000 voters statewide and that critics of the bill who say it would cost $11 million to provide photo IDs to all who need them are off the mark by about $10 million. But that's likely misinformation as well.
Here's what we do know: Actual incidents of voter fraud are extremely rare in the U.S. nowadays and most of them are committed by elections officials who are sometimes corrupt, but more often just inept.
"Mistakes were made," is the most typical explanation when votes are miscounted or lost.
Locally, we need look no further to see this than the 2004 presidential election when a number of voters in Farrell saw their votes disappear into the electronic ether due to a computer glitch. There was no criminality or grand conspiracy, just a bad line of code.
Here's something else we know: This bill is the product of the American Legislative Exchange Council, otherwise known as ALEC. Described by some as a "shadowy" organization, ALEC is really pretty up front about what it does. The group, which consists of lawmakers from all over the U.S. and business-friendly lobbyists, writes bills for lawmakers.
It makes work a lot easier for legislators who are too busy, lazy or worse, and has the added advantage of creating similar, if not identical, laws in a variety of states, making it easy for businesses to comply and political ideologues who trumpet their belief in the 10th Amendment to use the same playbook in this state as they do in that state.
Despite Mrs. Friday's concerns about the impact of voter ID on seniors, the population that's really in danger of losing their votes is poor folks who don't have photo IDs or an easy way to get them.
A lot of those people live in either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia and when they vote, which isn't nearly as often as seniors, they often cast their lots with the Democrats.
This is not just the paranoid fantasy of a liberal columnist. Mike Lofgren, a former Senate staffer who was privy to the inner workings of the GOP during his decades in Washington, cited voter ID laws as one of the "less savory" ways the party is working on the state level to drive down voter turnout.
Many have called the legislation "a solution in search of a problem," which makes it look like another instance of political posturing, annoying but totally expected from elected officials.
The legislation really is a solution, just not to the problem its proponents claim exists.
The "problem" is people who don't vote for Republicans and this solution is a cynical and sinister move that, if its critics' fears are realized, will actually increase voter fraud, which takes many forms. Stuffing the ballot box is one, but suppressing the vote is another.
Nick Hildebrand is The Herald's News Editor/Weekends. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published March 17, 2012, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.