The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has launched a formal investigation into whether Pennsylvania’s voter ID law discriminates against minorities, TPM has learned.
In a three-page letter sent to Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele on Monday, DOJ requested state data on registered voters as well as the state’s list of individuals with driver’s licenses and ID cards.
Additionally, DOJ requested information on the state’s efforts to educate voters about the new law as well as documents and records supporting a March 14 statement from the office of Gov. Tom Corbett (R) which claimed “99 percent of Pennsylvania’s already have acceptable photo IDs.” (The state’s own data did not support that figure.) Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez requested Pennsylvania send the information to federal authorities within 30 days.
Pennsylvania has said that over 750,000 voters lack an adequate form of voter ID, a number greater than President Obama’s margin of victory in the state in 2008. One top Republican even said the voter ID law would help Mitt Romney win the state. As TPM reported, the public relations firm contracted to educate the public about the new voter ID law is stacked with Republicans.
DOJ’s probe marks the first time it has publicly acknowledged a formal investigation of a voter ID law passed in a state which is not covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires certain states with a history of racial discrimination to have changes to their voting laws precleared. The Pennsylvania investigation falls under Section 2 of the VRA, which prohibits any state from enacting a “voting standard, practice, or procedure that results in the denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”
As TPM explained last year, the Supreme Court would likely be skeptical of a Section 2 case given that it ruled to uphold Indiana’s voter ID law in 2008. Samuel Bagenstos, who previously served as the number two official in the Civil Rights Division during the Obama administration, said DOJ would need to show that there was a significant racial disparity and that the burden of obtaining photo ID is significant. Many believe that Section 2 cases can only be brought after an election has taken place so that DOJ could present direct evidence that the law had a discriminatory effect, but civil rights groups have pushed DOJ to sue over voter ID laws in non-Section 5 states.
DOJ has already opposed voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, two states which are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. A panel of federal judges heard the Texas case earlier this month, while judges will hear South Carolina’s case later this summer.
Corbett’s office did not immediately respond to TPM’s request for comment. Perez’s letter to Pennsylvania is embedded below.
(Ed. note: The story has been updated with additional information about the letter.)