PITTSBURGH — Hundreds of thousands of potential voters here were left scrambling in the wake of Pennsylvania’s voter ID law — enough to prompt speculation as to whether the law could change the outcome of the election in November.
But one thing is clear: The law is already having a dramatic effect on how the election is being waged.
Democrats and their allies, who vehemently oppose the voter ID legislation, are still pinning their hopes on legal challenges to the law. But if the law survives, political organizers in Pennsylvania will have to alter their outreach plans to include identifying, contacting and getting proper identifications for thousands of voters.
“It scares the shit out of us,” Yuri Beckelman, campaign communications director for the AFL-CIO of Pennsylvania, said of the number of voters potentially affected. The union and several other allied groups are forming a statewide coalition aimed at “education and mobilization” around the voter ID law requirements.
The estimated 750,000 voters who do not have state-issued IDs in Pennsylvania surpasses President Obama’s margin of victory in 2008. Many of the voters without ID are in poor and minority communities — typically blocs that vote Democratic. Democrats’ worst fears appeared to be confirmed when the Republican leader of the state House, who helped shepherd the legislation onto the books, recently boasted that it will “allow” Mitt Romney win the Keystone State.
Democrats now have to make sure voters are aware of the law, know whether they comply, know how to meet the requirements if they don’t already — and do it all before Election Day. This could be a steep climb. Only one of five voters approached by TPM at Obama’s Pittsburgh rally Friday knew the law existed.
“I heard about it in Florida but not here,” said Martin Hoberman, a voter from the Pittsburgh area.
Jim Burn, the state Democratic Party chairman, said his forces are ready to integrate dealing with the voter ID law with their existing get-out-the-vote operations. But he acknowledged that it will add another layer of work.
“Yes, many voters are not aware of it,” he said. “All the more responsibility on us that a) they’re aware of it and b) we give them what they need to get out and exercise their constitutional rights.”
But doing so will be easier said than done: There’s no list of record for voters who don’t have proper ID, so Democrats have to go about creating their own list of targets who lack identification based on geography, income and other means. Then they hit them with the voter ID messaging as part of standard field operations.
“When we’re going do to door, which we’re doing anyway to talk about A, B, C and D, we’re now talking about A, B, C, D and E,” Burn said.
He urged Democrats to keep calm and carry on.
“We’re taking it very seriously, but I don’t want voters to overreact to it,” he said. “If you don’t have what you need to vote and you’re not sure, reach out to us. And if you don’t reach out to us, don’t worry, we’re going to be coming to you anyway.”
The reality is not that simple, said Roberta Winters, vice president of the Pennsylvania branch of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. The group is suing over the law and recently appealed to Pennsylvania’s Republican governor to delay implementation of the legislation. He declined.
What the law really does is move the field timeline up dramatically, she said. Her group is setting aside many of its normal activities like voter education and is instead scrambling to formulate a plan to get voters without ID into the system with enough time left for them to vote.
“We’re talking about having people in the Department of Transportation who know how to do this and can expedite this,” Winters said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been involved in trying to have driver’s license procedure in a motor vehicle office, but they’re not always as expeditious as they might be.”
Winters set the window to get an ID at “four to six weeks” and said that most of the group’s efforts to find voters without IDs and get them IDs “will have to be done before mid-September.” She said the timeline makes the challenge of getting people ID’d “especially challenging.”
“We will do our best to mitigate it and we’re also litigating it,” Winters said, referring to her group’s lawsuit. “I think it would be optimistic of me to think this is not going to disenfranchise people.”
Burn said that if the law stands, Democrats will have no choice but to put their shoulders to the wheel and add voter ID compliance to their list of goals for the fall.
“It’s just another one of those things that gets thrown at you,” he said.