Something big is happening in Philadelphia ahead of this fall’s presidential election – the first in the state since a stringent new Voter ID law was passed earlier this year – although people there concerned about it are having a maddeningly hard time putting their finger on the precise size of the problem. The city has just over 1 million registered voters. About 800,000 of them are considered “active.” “And about a third of them are on one of these two lists as potentially having ID problems,” says Tom Boyer. He’s a former journalist and computer scientist living in Philadelphia who has gotten involved in analyzing the potential impacts of Pennsylvania’s controversial law, which is now in the throes of a legal challenge. Boyer suspects that something historically bad could happen if the law isn’t overturned, and not enough people are talking about it. The Pennsylvania Department of State recently released two lists of the Pennsylvania residents whose state IDs have expired since last November (and thus can’t be used to verify their identity at the polls this fall), as well as a list of the active voters whose names don’t match up with the PennDOT database as currently having an ID. This second list is terribly sloppy (one database spells names like McCormack as “Mc Cormack,” and there’s all kinds of chaos with hyphens and apostrophes). But nonetheless, the best official data available suggests that as many as 280,000 voters in Philadelphia may need to get an ID between now and November to have their votes counted.
“I just think that’s a staggering number,” Boyer says. “Even if it’s half of 280,000, that’s an incredible number. Even if it’s a quarter, it’s a huge number.” Here’s another way to look at it: The state’s statistics show that about 9 percent of registered voters in the state are without current PennDOT IDs. In Philadelphia, that number is 18 percent. (Other analyses have put it even higher.) “The disparate impact is stunning,” says Stephanie Singer, the chairwoman of Philadelphia’s City Commission. Philadelphia is both a city and a county. The next closest county potentially has 12 percent of voters who may have ID problems. “It’s not that there’s a gradation, and Philadelphia is at one end of it,” Singer says. “It’s that there’s Philadelphia – and then there’s the rest of the state.”