A few days after upstart Republican Al Schmidt clobbered incumbent Joseph Duda and wrenched away the tightly held (by the GOP establishment) position of City Commissioner in last November’s general election, one source said to this reporter something like this: People think Al Schmidt’s some kind of progressive. But just you wait: He’s a snake in the grass. Something about the quotation stuck. Schmidt, after all, is a kind of political enigma here in Philadelphia: a Republican who’s managed to capture the attention, imagination and even votes of both restless Philly Republicans and local progressives, many of whom noticed over the last year that Schmidt had the habit — unusual among the entrenched political establishment of both parties — of answering questions, returning phone calls and engaging in intelligent, nuanced debate about his ideas. Still, he was (and remains) a Republican. And that raised an important question during his campaign, since the three City Commissioners have the incredibly sensitive job of running local elections: What did Schmidt think of laws requiring photo ID at polling places, being pushed by members of his own party in Harrisburg? Schmidt said at the time that he opposed the voter-ID law “as it was written,” noting that it was an “unfunded mandate.” Which meant, if you thought about it, that he didn’t necessarily oppose it because its obvious intent — here and in every state considering such legislation — was to squelch Democratic votes.
Since he defeated Duda, Schmidt has kept a relatively low profile — until last Wednesday, that is, when he held a sudden press conference to introduce a report compiled by his office alleging to have uncovered “hundreds” of cases of “voting irregularities” and “voter fraud.” The response from state Republicans was predictable and virtually immediate. Schmidt’s report, declared state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the primary sponsor of a recently passed photo-ID law, “finally confirms what leading Democrat opponents of voter ID and those in the mainstream media have been denying all along” — that is, that fraud isn’t a problem worthy of addressing with restrictive voting requirements. “Philadelphia,” Metcalfe added, “is without question one of our nation’s most infested epicenters for rampant election fraud and corruption.”
It is the specter of voter fraud that has become the GOP’s justification for laws all over the country requiring photo ID at the polls — “specter” because, while spooky in the abstract, its existence is largely a fiction of imagination. Actual voter fraud — in which a person pretends to be someone else in order to steal their vote, votes more than once or votes without being legally registered — has been proven and documented so few times nationally that it’s not clear it’s even statistically significant, let alone a problem in need of legislative action. That hasn’t stopped several state legislatures, led by Republicans coordinating with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), itself funded in part by the ultra-conservative and fabulously wealthy Koch brothers — get the picture? — from passing laws requiring government-issued photo identification at polling places. Studies have found that such laws disproportionately affect the elderly, the poor and minorities. In Pennsylvania alone, nearly 760,000 voters — or 9 percent of the entire voting population — don’t have PennDOT IDs, and that percentage doubles in heavily Democratic Philadelphia.