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Q&A with Richardson Dilworth: Election Reform

July 10, 2012

Richardson Dilworth
According to data recently released by state election officials, 9.2 percent of the state’s 8.2 million voters in Pennsylvania do not currently have Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) photo identification. Under Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law, that could leave as many as 758,000 registered voters ineligible to participate in the November election.

DrexelNow talked with Dr. Richardson Dilworth, an associate professor and director for Drexel’s Center for Public Policy, about the what those numbers mean for Philadelphia, and if Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law could impact the presidential election.

When the new voter ID law was passed, it was estimated that 99 percent of Pennsylvania voters already had some form of the required identification. Now, that number is believed to be 90.8 percent. What types of factors could contribute to such a discrepancy between the original projected numbers and the new numbers, which were based on a comparison of voter registration and PennDOT ID databases?

More generally, my guess is that the Corbett administration needed to find figures that showed that their reform would have minimal effect on turnout, to make it more politically palatable.

My other best guess is that this was a politically motivated reform, designed to reduce the turnout of voters who would be more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. People who do not have driver's licenses or other forms of ID are more likely to be lower income. Lower income people are more likely to vote Democratic. Every elected official in the state knows this, so it must have been on their minds when they proposed this reform.

Indeed, the origins of voter registration from the early 20th century lie in the efforts of generally wealthier reform politicians to gain an electoral advantage by effectively disenfranchising poorer, working class voters. This ID law is a reform very much like the earlier registration laws.

In Philadelphia, the percentage of voters without proper ID is even higher—18 percent. Why do you think that percentage is so high in comparison to the rest of the state?

Philadelphia has a higher proportion of poor people in its population than does the rest of the state. People who are poorer are also less likely to have ID. I think that probably explains why more Philadelphians will not be able to vote in the 2012 election as a result of the new ID law.

An alternate explanation is that [fewer]Philadelphians have cars than do people elsewhere in the state, because Philadelphians can walk to work. I don't think this is a good explanation, for at least two reasons: First, people without cars in Philadelphia are also more likely to be poor. Second, wealthier people (who also tend to be more highly educated) who do not have cars are probably just as likely to have drivers licenses as those who have cars, and even they don't have licenses, they most likely have other forms of valid ID.

What is the likelihood of the new voter ID requirement having an effect at the polls in November? If any, what effect do you think it will have on the election?

I think it will probably have a tremendous impact on the election, because it could result in Romney winning Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is an important state for winning the presidency. If I had to guess, that's why I think Republicans in Pennsylvania were motivated to pass this law. If they can swing their state for Romney, they can take a lot of credit for Romney winning the presidency, which means that the new president will owe them.

The effective disenfranchisement of at least some poorer voters through the Pennsylvania ID law reflects a more general trend, of political power being concentrated among wealthier groups—the "New Gilded Age," as it has been called.