REPORTING FROM PHILADELPHIA -- With last-minute changes in voter identification laws in Pennsylvania, many civil rights groups, academics and advocacy groups are questioning how Black voter turnout will be affected in this critical swing state.
In Philadelphia, the home of the state’s largest African-American community, there remains a good deal of concern about how the back-and-forth in the courts will affect voter perceptions of Black voters. There are a number of opinions.
“I think people are very clear about the fact that they are not required to have voter IDs,” said W. Wilson Goode, the first Black mayor of Philadelphia, in an interview with BET.com.
“I believe that the controversy has increased interest in the election in the Black community and that the increased interest will result in increased turnout,” Goode said. “In a strange way, the voter law controversy will help turnout in the Black community. When people try to take something away from you, you feel more strongly about keeping it – and using it.”
Earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s Republican legislature passed a strict new voter identification law, requiring many voters to obtain new documents. The move was harshly criticized by civil rights groups and advocacy organizations who contended that the new laws were designed to make it difficult for African-American, elderly and urban voters to cast their ballots. In the end, however, a state court ruled that the new voter laws would not go into effect for this year’s presidential election.
Nonetheless, some experts say that there remains a strong potential for voter confusion.
“There has been a delay in removing billboards about voter fraud and voter ID,” said James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University. “Because of the delay in changing the language on the website, there is bound to be some confusion.”
Peterson also said that there is a strong likelihood that many poll workers will ask voters to see identification documents, although the final court decision stated that presenting such identification is not required.
“People need to understand that they don’t have to show any ID in order to vote,” Peterson said. “But if people believe they need them, and don’t have them, it could have an effect.”
Kenneth D. Waters, an adjunct professor of leadership and political science at Harcum College in the Philadelphia area, said that many people are aware of the final court ruling. But he said a larger problem is that too many voters remain unmotivated to cast their ballots.
“Too many of my students feel that they have no reason to vote,” Waters said. “They feel cynical. Either they feel that elections are rigged and their votes don’t count, or they feel that the conditions of their lives never change, no matter who they vote for.”
Waters said he tries to underscore the importance of voting to his students. “The main thing I want them to understand is that they have a voice in their future and that they need to use that voice.”
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(Photo: W. Wilson Goode, BET, Lehigh University)