New Castle News

Closer Look

December 3, 2013

Lawmakers eye package of voter bills

HARRISBURG — Conflicts caused by the state’s last attempt to improve the integrity of elections was the biggest source of complaints logged by a watchdog group during the 2012 presidential race.

But that isn’t stopping lawmakers from trying to tinker even more with the state’s election rules, again in the name of improving voting integrity.

The Legislature’s state government committee conducted a hearing on a package of bills that includes tougher penalties for voter intimidation and a ban on promotional materials inside polling places.

The bills come up as the state’s controversial voter ID law remains in legal limbo, blocked from taking effect by a state appeals court judge’s order.

The law passed in March 2012 has never been enforced, but it has resulted in confusion and anger among poll workers told they had to ask for ID and voters told they didn’t need to show it.

Like the voter ID law, a proposed ban on promotions in polling places could create conflict between voters and those who are supposed to be assisting them, advocates worry.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of Common Cause, said a ban on posters would be acceptable.

But it would cause problems, he said, “if that is interpreted to mean you can’t walk in wearing a pin with the name of your preferred candidate.”

Poll workers shouldn’t be judging what voters are wearing, Kauffman said.

Concern about political materials is a response to an incident in the November 2012 presidential election. Conservatives objected to a mural of President Barack Obama on the wall of a Philadelphia elementary school that served as a polling place.

Poll workers initially covered just the face of Obama’s likeness, leaving other tell-tale quotes and logos in view. The entire mural was later covered under court order.

“It is important to note that the mural of President Obama was a part of a school mural that had nothing to do with election materials,” said Joe Certaine, of the Pennsylvania Voting Rights Coalitions. “It was used as a political issue because the school is also used as a polling place, and coincidentally came into view of voters using the building.”

But the author of the promotions ban, Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York County, described the mural as a form of voter intimidation.

“Despite the initial reasons for the mural, its visible location in a polling place sends a definite bias to voters, and the appearance of not holding fair elections that are free of voter intimidation,” Saylor said in a memo to other lawmakers.

“There should be no need to demonstrate that these actually affected the outcome of an election,” said Robert Popper, a senior attorney with Judicial Watch, during the state government committee’s hearing. “It affects the public view.”

Judicial Watch is a right-leaning election watchdog that advocated and defended the state’s effort to roll out voter ID rules for the 2012 elections.

Confusion about the ID law — and the conflict it created between poll workers and voters — accounted for 27 percent of the complaints to a watchdog group, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, monitoring the 2012 elections.

In Crawford County, for example, confusion over the law led to allegations of voter intimidation. Those centered on misleading signs posted by election workers that warned voters they would not be allowed to cast a ballot without showing a photo ID.

Melanie Mushrush, director of elections for Crawford County, conceded the signs were poorly phrased, and she apologized for the confusion. But county workers are in a difficult position, she said, when the state insists that poll workers ask for ID even though the appeals court’s injunction remains in effect.

As recently as this month, the Department of State promoted the voter ID law in television commercials even though enforcement of it remained stalled.

Unlike the controversy surrounding the voter ID law, a proposal to toughen penalties for intimidating voters is gaining favor across the political spectrum.

Liberal groups have said Tea Party activists have crossed the line in some cases, while conservatives point to a 2008 episode in Philadelphia involving members of the New Black Panthers.

In that incident, two members of the group stood near the doorway of a polling place, and one allegedly brandished a nightstick and shouted insults at poll-watchers.

The case became notorious among conservative groups who criticized the U.S. Department of Justice for not responding aggressively enough.

“It is the kind of thing that can generate cynicism” about the integrity of the election, Popper said. “Federal laws have not worked.”

Government and independent election monitors have found evidence of voter intimidation across the state.

Allegations of voter intimidation were reported in 24 of 60 counties in 2012, according to the Department of State.

(Email: jfinnerty@cnhi.com)

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