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‘Like Nailing Jell-O to a Wall’

Professor Keith Reeves ’88’s research data helps opponents of new voter ID law

By Elizabeth Vogdes


Keith Reeves spent the early fall anxiously awaiting a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision on the voter ID law, expected in October. Photo by Lawrence Kesterson

Pennsylvania’s new tough voter ID statute, passed in March, has had a dramatically polarizing effect. Voted into law down straight party lines, with Republican state legislators supporting it and Democrats opposing, the law has galvanized many Democrats who feel that its stringent requirements (already changed at least once during the summer) make it an act of voter suppression. By requiring a photo ID, it is expected that certain groups who tend to vote along Democratic lines, including the poor, minorities, the elderly, and college students, will effectively become unable to vote.

At the outset, there were no known cases of in-person voter fraud in the state, so “it looks like this was a solution in search of a problem,” says Keith Reeves ’88, associate professor of political science. “There’s been enormous pushback with lots of folks bringing public attention to this.”

In this century’s political contests, where swing-state winners have often triumphed by razor-thin margins, this statute could make a critical difference in the upcoming presidential election, when the law is slated to go into effect. Indeed, in June, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai openly declared to his fellow GOP members in the state capitol of Harrisburg that the existence of the law would now allow a Mitt Romney victory in the state.

Reeves, who is also director of Swarthmore’s Center for Social and Policy Studies, has been asked by a coalition of Pennsylvania Democrats and civil rights attorneys to serve as a consultant, applying his survey-research expertise to this law.

“This is the modern, contemporary equivalent of a poll tax,” says Reeves. In April’s primary, he and his team conducted exit polls in multiple precincts across Philadelphia, the results of which confirmed that there would be an undue burden on targeted voter groups. Reaction to the law this past summer included a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and a separate investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled to uphold the law on Aug. 15. At press time, the fate of the law was in the hands of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

To Reeves, the most disturbing aspect of Pennsylvania’s law is that the rules keep changing “so it’s really hard to figure out how you can make sure that people come into compliance and, at the end of the day, that they’re not denied the right to vote come November.” One worry is that individuals with a long voting history may not be able to obtain proper ID in a timely fashion.

A related source of concern, Reeves says, is that though there should be statewide training for election officials, this may not filter down to workers at polling stations in a consistent fashion, where he expects there will be a wide disparity in interpreting the regulation, come Nov. 6.

During the April primary, his team witnessed a number of scuffles over the law; for example, some poll workers demanded ID (as Reeves himself personally experienced) even though it is not required until November.

Further problems could involve the simple act of getting would-be voters to often-distant Pennsylvania Department of Transportation driver’s license photo centers, where nondrivers will be able to obtain a free voter ID. Once there, they may find the already overburdened centers unequipped to deal with the new paperwork. Interpreting and implementing this law, Reeves sums up drolly, is “like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.”

To blunt the impact of the new law, Democratic operatives worked over the summer to target Obama supporters in need of IDs. Still, Reeves fears that, with the cloud of confusion surrounding Pennsylvania’s voter ID law, too many people will “go fishing”—stay home—in November. As a result, one of the real-world courses this busy professor has now added to his roster is voter education.


On Oct. 2, as the magazine went to press, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson handed down a decision on the controversial voter-ID law. Simpson’s opinion was that the law could be constitutional but that it couldn’t be implemented in five weeks with a guarantee that no one would be disenfranchised for the Nov. 6 election. As the Patriot-News wrote, “Gov. Tom Corbett said his administration plans to proceed with a continuation of the ‘soft roll-out’ used in the April primary, meaning voters will be told that a photo-ID requirement is coming for future elections, but they won’t be barred from voting on Nov. 6 if they don’t have one that day.” For on Keith Reeve’s reaction to the decision, click here.

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