Carol Aichele, Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is no stranger to being named a defendant in voter disenfranchisement lawsuits, with the most recent example being the PA Voter ID trial (Applewhite v. Commonwealth of PA) which went before the Honorable Bernard L. McGinley this past summer. Before she became Secretary of the Commonwealth and Pennsylvania’s Chief Election Official in 2011, Aichele was a Chester County Commissioner and, as part of that role, on the Chester County Board of Elections in 2008, when the County became embroiled in a lengthy voting rights dispute between county officials and residents, escalating in 2010 into a lawsuit (English v. Chester County) and a subsequent out of court settlement.
On Primary Election Day 2008, 480 ballots were cast at the Lower Oxford East (Precinct #425) polling place located at the Lincoln Village Community Association building (or simply, “Community Center”) which caused poll workers to remain 2 hours past the scheduled closing time of 8 p.m., in order to accommodate the number of people still waiting to vote. A few months after the 2008 Primary, a frustrated, group of Lincoln University students and township residents submitted a petition to the Chester County Office of Voter Services requesting that the polling place be moved from the cramped Community Center back to its previous, more spacious location at Manuel Rivero Hall on the nearby Lincoln University campus. According to an article by Michael P. Rellahan in the Daily Local News, among some of Commissioner Aichele’s concerns about Manuel Rivero Hall were “a steep set of stairs that seniors would have to negotiate and a confusing ramp for handicapped accessibility – outweighed the advantages of parking and an enclosed waiting area.” It is unclear as to why Commissioner Aichele thought the “confusing” ramp at the Lincoln University site was more troublesome to senior citizens and disabled voters than the absence of a functioning ramp at the Community Center, or how the ample parking and an enclosed waiting area at the university could be so easily dismissed in favor of the paucity of parking and inadequate size of the Community Center. Additionally, the article stated: “She [Aichele] also said she believed students at Lincoln could put up with the hardship of leaving campus. ‘We have kids in Chester County who walk farther to get the bus (to school).’” Clearly Aichele didn’t notice the narrow road and dangerous lack of sidewalks along the poorly lit 1 mile route from the Lincoln campus to the Community Center. At the September 23, 2008 public hearing, in a 2-1 decision, Republican Commissioners Farrell and Aichele voted against moving the polling place while Democrat Commissioner Cozzone voted in favor of returning the polling place to Manuel Rivero Hall.
From early morning on Election Day, until well-past 11 p.m. on Election Night, November 4, 2008, registered voters in Lower Oxford East/Precinct #425, were forced to stand in line for up to 7 hours outside and at times in the pouring rain just to (as eligible Americans should be able to) cast their ballots. The interior of the Community Center was approximately 817 square feet (about the size of a modest 1 bedroom apartment) and had only a single restroom. Per the Chester County Official Results, out of the 2,796 registered voters assigned to vote at that precinct, 1,556 ballots were cast at the Lower Oxford East polling place during the Presidential Election in 2008. The Board of Elections knew or should have known that forcing hundreds of people to line up around and cram inside of a tiny building with only 1 restroom, 6 voting booths and 1 ballot scanner would be burdensome and discourage hundreds of eligible Americans from voting. Despite being notified in September, by way of a petition to relocate the polling place, the Board of Elections flat-out ignored petitioners’ valid concerns.
Ironically, although Aichele expressed concern for the well-being of senior citizens and disabled voters in 2008, she would go on to be one of the biggest proponents of the Voter ID law in 2012, which if upheld by the Court and enforced in 2013, would have disproportionately disenfranchised the elderly and disabled, many of whom lack valid ID for voting purposes due to illness, limited physical mobility, lack of transportation &/or inability to make the trip to the nearest PennDOT DL/ID centers of which there are only 71 in the entire Commonwealth.
Just as Aichele grossly underestimated the high voter turnout, importance of an enclosed waiting area and ample parking would be in 2008, she made the major miscalculation as Pennsylvania’s Chief Election Official of how many voters would not have acceptable ID under the 2012 Voter ID law. The Department of State initially estimated that 99% of eligible voters already had acceptable ID for voting purposes. According to Dr. Bernard Siskin’s expert report, the number of Pennsylvanians without valid ID is approximately 511,000 Pennsylvanians which is roughly 6 times greater than the Department of State’s initial projections. Here are a few more thought-provoking statistics from Dr. Siskin’s Report of registered Pennsylvania voters who will not have valid ID prior to the November 2013 election: 7.36% registered Democrats compared to 4.52% registered Republicans and 10.8% registered African-American voters compared to 5.49% registered White/Non-Hispanic voters.
Proponents of the Voter ID law, including Carol Aichele, publicly claim that the purpose of this law is to prevent voter fraud despite the absence of any instances of proven in-person voter fraud in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Assuming that there was a legitimate concern about in-person voter fraud, why have stringent expiration requirements for acceptable forms of IDs? If a person has an authentic, genuine PennDot-issued driver’s license or identification card, why should it matter if it’s expired or not for voting purposes? Requiring that an acceptable form of ID not be expired becomes a poll tax when an individual has no use for the DL/ID other than for voting. While renewals of IDs are free for the sole purpose of voting if the proper paperwork is filed, many elderly and disabled people are unable to make the trip to one of only 71 PennDot Licensing Centers in the Commonwealth without it being an unduly burdensome undertaking. There are 9 Counties that do not have a PennDot Licensing center: Cameron, Clinton, Forest, Fulton, Juniata, Montour, Perry, Sullivan and Union. There are also several counties with extremely limited hours: Counties with PennDot licensing center open 1 day per week: Columbia, Clarion, Wayne, Huntingdon, Carbon, Mifflin, Pike, Bradford, Susquehanna, Northumberland, Wyoming, Greene and Tioga and Counties with a PennDot licensing center open 2 days per week: Armstrong, Potter, Bedford, Westmoreland, McKean, Indiana, Jefferson, Venango, Elk and Warren.
Since August 2012, the Department of State (DOS) offered another option for voter ID that is free and less stringent about supporting documents needed to obtain them. According to a June 27, 2013 article by Matt Hutchinson, during an editorial board meeting with the Sun-Gazette, Secretary Aichele said, “If you can register to vote, you can get a state ID card. No documentation is required.” However, there are multiple reasons why even this option does not make ID more accessible or Secretary Aichele’s assertion that getting a DOS ID is as easy as registering to vote. First, despite the $5 Million ad campaign last year that was supposed to educate voters about the law and the requirements for acceptable ID, there was little to no information about the DOS ID or how to obtain one. Second, even though the DOS ID is separate from a PennDot ID, both IDs can only be obtained at a PennDot Licensing center. So, while the DOS ID is arguably easier to obtain in terms of supporting documentation, this option does not address the lack of accessibility to the PennDot licensing centers themselves. Third, approximately 22.5% of DOS ID applicants from September 2012 until July 2013 were labeled “exceptions” and were told that their applications needed to be reviewed further and that they would receive their IDs in the mail. Some of the “exceptions” either never received their IDs or received the ID several months later and usually after additional paperwork and phone calls.
Did the fact that over 60% of the registered voters of Lower Oxford East were African-American and tended to vote Democrat influence Aichele’s decision to oppose the request to move the polling place? Considering the evidence presented in English v. Chester County and the subsequent settlement in favor of the plaintiffs, it appears that purposeful voter suppression may have been a significant factor in Aichele’s refusal to move the polling location to a site better suited to handle the anticipated high voter turnout for the election that could very well (and, in fact, did) elect the first African-American President of the United States. Not only was the voter suppression in Lower Oxford East onerous and reprehensible in and of itself, but because Aichele chose to ignore the petitioners’ request to relocate the polling place in 2008 (or in 2009 after a second petition to move was submitted) ultimately resulting in the County being ordered by the Court to pay Plaintiffs’ counsel $60,000.00 and an unknown sum of money for the County’s own defense.
What is the real purpose of the Voter ID law? While Secretary Aichele, the Pennsylvania Republican Party and other proponents of the Voter ID law may want the average person to believe that the law is intended to prevent in-person voter fraud, its purpose so far seems to be to prevent people in certain demographic categories from voting, mainly the elderly, poor and minorities. If keeping the “wrong” kinds of people from voting was not the intent, why did Representative Mike Turzai assume that implementation of the Voter ID law would lead Mitt Romney to presidential victory or Pennsylvania GOP chair, Rob Gleason brag that despite the Voter ID law not being enforced in 2012, that he believed that enough confused people didn’t vote, resulting in a 5% reduction of votes for President Obama? It is a shame Secretary Aichele didn’t learn from being sued as a Chester County Commissioner for her part in disenfranchising voters that were less likely to vote Republican. She failed as a Board of Elections Official to ensure that all eligible Chester County voters were able to exercise their right to vote and now, as the Commonwealth’s Chief Elections Officer, she has thus far failed again and now it is up to the Court to decide whether the law is upheld or struck down. Considering her history in Chester County and the choices she has made to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians, it is clear that Secretary Aichele is not the Chief Elections Officer but the Chief Voter Suppressor.
[Note: I wrote this article in July 2013, had published it via my local Patch.com and then I deleted it because it was too lengthy for the usual Patch.com piece. Anyway, per PILCOP, in mid August 2013, the temporary injunction was extended but the Commonwealth Court has yet to issue a final decision regarding a permanent injunction.]
For more info visit the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) links below: