Damning New Report Details Partisan and Sometimes Racially Charged Motivations of those Administering Pennsylvania’s Elections – From Statewide Officials to County Election Board Members
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, in a letter sent to Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortés (included below), Allied Progress called on the Pennsylvania’s top election official to root out those motivated by partisanship and/or racial animus in the administration of the state’s elections. The request follows a months-long investigation into Pennsylvania’s election administration resulting in the publication of a new report titled, “Something’s Rotten: Pennsylvania’s Shameful Record of Voter Suppression and the Partisan and Sometimes Racially Charged Motivations of Those Administering Its Elections.”
The report details recent attempts by statewide elected officials, state legislators, and county election boards to make voter registration and voting more difficult in Pennsylvania through efforts that disproportionately affect minority, senior citizen, disabled, and low-income voters. It also reveals the admittedly partisan political motivations behind these efforts and the sometimes racially charged and conspiratorial machinations of local officials entrusted with running impartial and unbiased elections in the Keystone State.
“Secretary of the Commonwealth Cortés must move swiftly to root out partisanship and racial animus in the administration of Pennsylvania’s elections – both at the county election board-level and in his own office. Regardless of how we vote, we all want elections that are free from political tampering,” said Allied Progress Executive Director Karl Frisch. He continued, “The admittedly partisan efforts by some Pennsylvania politicians to reduce the participation of minority, senior citizen, disabled, and low-income voters in our democratic process should worry us all. This report shows in chilling detail how so many of those responsible for administering Pennsylvania’s elections are motivated by partisanship and in too many cases, make disturbing racially charged and conspiratorial comments.”
- Pennsylvania’s Strict Voter ID Law Was Recently Struck Down, Yet the State is One of Only a Handful Nationwide Not to Offer Early Voting. The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a strict law in 2012 requiring voters to show a photo ID in order to vote. The law, however, was never fully implemented (a court blocked the law from taking full effect in 2012), and it was struck down in 2014. Research has found “substantial drops in turnout for minorities under strict voter ID laws” such as this. And although 37 states offer some kind of early voting, Pennsylvania offers no period of early voting whatsoever. Early voting, especially Sunday voting, has been shown to make voting more accessible, particularly for minority voters. Early voting measures repeatedly have been introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature but have yet to pass.
- Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law Was Widely Criticized as a Tactic to Disenfranchise Minority Voters and Was Labeled “One of the Nation’s Toughest Voter ID Laws.” Opponents of the law argued it would disenfranchise minority, low-income, and elderly voters, who sometimes lack photo IDs and the documents, such as birth certificates, to obtain them. They also pointed to the difficult, bureaucratic process of obtaining an ID for low-income, elderly, and disabled voters. Pennsylvania’s substantial Amish and Mennonite population, many of whom have religious objections to being photographed, also faced problems with the state’s voter ID law. Although former Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele repeatedly asserted that 99 percent of Pennsylvania voters already had a required photo ID to vote, after the bill was signed into law, the Pennsylvania Department of State released data that showed more than 758,000 registered voters—or 9.2 percent of voters—did not have an allowable photo ID.
- Several Pennsylvania Republicans Credited the Voter ID Law for Helping their Party in the 2012 Election. Most notably, Rep. Mike Turzai, then the Pennsylvania house majority leader, bragged at a Republican meeting that the state’s new voter ID law “is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” After the election, Penn. GOP Chairman Rob Gleason credited the voter ID law for helping Romney’s vote tally in the state. “We cut Obama by five percent [in 2012 vs. 2008]. I think that probably voter ID had helped a bit in that.”
- Between Mar. 2012 (Passage of the Voter ID Law) and Oct. 2012 (Enforcement Suspended) – And, in Many Cases, Even After Enforcement Was Suspended – Pennsylvania Led a Misleading Campaign That Disenfranchised Voters. Corbett signed a nearly $250,000 contract with the Bravo Group, run by Republican fundraiser and former Pennsylvania GOP Executive Director Chris Bravacos, to educate voters about the new law through a media campaign. The campaign technically adjusted its message after the Oct. 2012 ruling, adding in small print, “if you have” an ID, “show it” – a tactic that voting rights groups called “incredibly misleading,” since the ID law was not being enforced during the November 2012 election. PECO, Pennsylvania’s largest utility company, sent a newsletter to 1.3 million customers advising them that they would need to present a valid photo ID in order to vote in the upcoming election, which customers received after the court ruled that the law would not be in effect. Polling places in Montgomery, Delaware, Butler, and Crawford Counties posted signs that said voters were required to show photo ID at the polls, and voters in Philadelphia, as well as in Montgomery and Delaware Counties, reported that they were forced to cast provisional ballots when they did not show an ID. All told, for their efforts to implement the unenforceable law, Pennsylvania spent $5 million in federal funds received under the Help America Vote Act and $1 million in state funds – plus another $943,000 in legal fees defending the law, which was finally struck down in Jan. 2014.
These Policies Are Driven by Politics and Sometimes Race (Admittedly So in Some Cases):
- State Representative Daryl Metcalfe: Introduced the 2012 voter ID bill. Even after it faced legal defeat, Metcalfe said that he would “continue advocating for voter photo identification and other measures to ensure that voters are not disenfranchised by the forces of corruption.” When the 2012 law was challenged by Pennsylvanians who argued that the bureaucratic processes for obtaining an accepted photo ID were too onerous, Metcalfe dismissed their concerns, characterizing those who are unable to get a photo ID as “too lazy.” When convening a hearing to make English the official language of Pennsylvania, he invited a man identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist. It was not the first time that Metcalfe had been tied to white supremacists. In 2008, he was nominated for the “Christian National Soldier” award for voting against a resolution recognizing the 60th Annual Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Convention.
- State Representative Mike Turzai: Became a national figure for admitting, as mentioned above, that the point of the 2012 Pennsylvania voter ID law was to help Republicans win elections. “Mr. Turzai’s statement is the smoking gun,” a Democratic state senator responded. “This was not about stopping any voter fraud. This was part of a national effort by the Republican Party to pass laws disenfranchising large numbers of voters who tend to vote Democratic.” Even the Republican judge who rejected a challenge to the law called Turzai’s statements “disturbing.”
- State Representative Stephen Bloom: Vocal supporter of the 2012 voter ID law, writing on Twitter, “Do you like having your vote diluted by fake voters? Me neither. Voter ID = voter protection,” despite the fact that widespread voter fraud has been shown to be nearly nonexistent in Pennsylvania or in any other state. Bloom blamed President Obama for encouraging racial divisions in the country, even blaming the President for the Baltimore riots that broke out in response to the death of Freddie Gray.
- State Representative Will Tallman: Co-sponsored the 2012 voter ID bill. After the law was struck down, Tallman introduced another, slightly different bill that would require voters to show an ID at the polls. Tallman said that requiring voters to show identification at the polls is necessary to prevent voter fraud, stating, “Voter fraud is happening in Pennsylvania and it’s fairly widespread.” At a Tea Party rally in 2010, Tallman suggested a bizarre conspiracy about a military team being assembled to deal with Tea Party members on Election Day. Tallman told the crowd that he had heard on the radio that a “contingency response team” composed of military personnel was being assembled to “take care of any problems during the election.”
- State Representative Dan Moul: Co-sponsored the 2012 voter ID bill and co-sponsored Rep. Daryl Metcalfe’s 2008 version of voter ID legislation. He also opposed allowing early voting in Pennsylvania, fearing that it would make it easier to cast fraudulent votes. “I think Election Day should be Election Day. Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned,” Moul said. In addition to supporting voter suppression policies, Moul also angered minority lawmakers when, shortly after taking office, he questioned the need for the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus to exist.
Local Election Administrators Motivated by Partisanship and Sometimes Race:
- Berks County: Republican members of the Berks County Board of Elections, Commissioners Christian Leinbach and Mark Scott, have supported voter suppression policies in the county, including one to relocate a polling place from a college campus to a location several miles away. Leinbach, who ran as a far-right candidate in a failed congressional bid in 1996 and was a Ted Cruz delegate in 2016, and also supported Pennsylvania’s 2012 voter ID law. Scott was a vocal opponent of bilingual ballots in Berks County, which help make voting more accessible to Latino voters. “I believe we have to stand up and fight for what we believe in,” Scott said. “Maybe Berks County has to be the Bunker Hill of bilingualism.”
- Chester County Commissioner Terence Farrell: Supported a 2008 effort to keep a polling place off a college campus, even though students experienced lines of more than six hours in the previous election. Farrell, a Republican, also ignored evidence that a Republican poll watcher in Chester County was repeatedly challenging the eligibility of young African-American voters in 2008. “When frustrated voters approached him to voice their concerns,” a voting rights lawsuit against the county stated, “Commissioner Farrell shrugged and dismissed them.”
- Bucks County Commissioner Charles Martin: Was on the Board of Elections when it was sued in 2008 for deliberately suppressing voter turnout by moving a polling place away from Creekside, an area with a significant population of minority and low-income residents without cars. A local elections director testified that she was harassed and intimidated by her Republican superiors, including Commissioner Martin, for not supporting the move. Refused to appoint any Democrats to help inspect voting machines prior to the 2010 election.
- Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt: Released a report in July 2012 that argued voter fraud was a problem in Philadelphia, yet pointed to the city’s “only known example of voter impersonation” in it. Both the chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party and former secretary of state Carol Aichele issued statements citing the report as proof that the state needed a voter ID law. GOP Chairman Rob Gleason even raised money off the report.
- Delaware County Councilors Carmen Belefonte and James Flandreau: Both challenged absentee ballots cast by nursing home residents in 2013. The nursing home residents claimed that there was no “shred of evidence that there was some form of misconduct in the way the ballots were filled out,” and a judge agreed, ruling in their favor.
Pennsylvania’s Voter Suppression Groups
- Independence Hall Foundation: Formerly the Independence Hall Tea Party, it awarded the leading sponsor of the 2012 voter ID law with its “Pennsylvania State Legislator of the Year” award. It also threatened to primary Gov. Corbett if he didn’t appeal the federal court’s decision invalidating the law. The group organized an “Election Day Poll Watching Project” to train volunteers to monitor polling places on Election Day to supposedly watch for voter fraud.
- True the Vote: Has been criticized on a national level for focusing its poll watchers and voter registration challenges on minority communities. Even its founder acknowledges the motivations behind her group’s effort to fight alleged election fraud: “You don’t need a whole lot of election fraud; you just need a little bit in the right places to swing an election.” The group advocated for the state’s voter ID law and targeted Pennsylvania for poll watching in 2012. One associated e-mail blast, from the Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement, encouraged supporters to volunteer as poll watchers, noting, “With Governor Corbett not upholding the voter-ID law, we need poll watchers,” but warned that “some of the areas that need poll watchers are not in the nicest part of town.”
Text of Letter to Secretary of State (PDF Download):
The Honorable Pedro Cortés
Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth
302 North Office Building
Harrisburg, PA, 17120
RE: Investigation into Partisanship/Racial Animus in Pennsylvania Election Administration
Dear Secretary Cortés,
As Secretary of the Commonwealth you set the tone for how elections should be administered in Pennsylvania. County election board members, state legislators, and other statewide elected officials look to your example when considering questions of voter registration and election administration.
That is why we write to you today: in hopes that your office will root out any Pennsylvania election official – both at the county election board level and in your own office – who is motivated by partisanship or racial animus.
Our request comes after a months-long investigation into Pennsylvania’s election administration resulting in the publication of a new report included with this letter. It details recent attempts by state and local officials to make voter registration and voting more difficult through efforts that disproportionately affect minority, senior citizen, disabled, and low-income voters.
It also reveals the admittedly partisan political motivations behind many of these efforts and the unfortunately common occurrence of local election officials who should be demonstrating impartiality instead making partisan, racially charged, and/or conspiratorial comments publicly.
Voters must be able to trust that our elections are being administered in a fair and even-handed way by officials committed to neutrality and objectivity.
As Pennsylvania’s chief election official and steward of the state’s democratic process, it is your responsibility to hold accountable anyone who does not meet this high standard.
We hope you will rise to the occasion.
Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of our request. If you have any questions or need additional information, please don’t hesitate to contact us directly.
This report is one of several state-based investigations being released by Allied Progress this month.
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