With the 2012 elections less than seven weeks away, registered Montgomery County voters who still lack acceptable voter identification got an assist from the county's Board of Commissioners on Thursday.
Exploiting an apparent loophole in the controversial Voter ID law that was passed by the state legislature last spring, the commissioners passed a resolution that will allow the county to begin issuing valid voter identification cards to registered voters under the auspices of the Parkhouse nursing care facility in Upper Providence Township.
The resolution takes advantage of a section of the law that lists which entities are allowed to issue acceptable forms of voter identification. Section 1 (z.5)(2) lists the federal or state governments, an accredited Pennsylvania institution of higher learning, a municipality of the Commonwealth, or a "Pennsylvania care facility."
According to David Robinson, an assistant solicitor for the county, the law states that municipalities can only issue identification cards to their employees, but the other authorized issuers are not restricted in their ability to issue identification.
A passport is an example of federally issued identification, while a Pennsylvania driver license or a voting ID from the PA Department of State are examples of state-issued identification.
"A strict reading of the law clearly authorizes a Pennsylvania care facility, such as Parkhouse, to issue voter ID cards to any registered voter," Robinson said, adding that he believes the resolution is "in concert" with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court order of last week.
"It helps to assure that Montgomery County voters have liberal access to Voter ID cards. Second, a Commonwealth challenge to Parkhouse's right to issue voter ID cards would arguably be an attempt to impose stricter rules than are contemplated by the statute, a direct violation of the express mandate of the Supreme Court," Robinson said.
A State Department spokesperson told the Philadelphia Inquirer that it had no "immediate" plans to challenge the county's move, though Ron Ruman noted to the newspaper that the law's "clear intent" was to limit issuance of identification to people who had "direct connections" to the issuing institutions.
Asked whether the use of the Parkhouse in this capacity constituted a "loophole" in the Voter ID law, County Commissioner Josh Shapiro was equivocal.
"I think you'd have to leave that to the [state] legislature, to determine what their intention was. All I can do is read the law, which clearly gives us the authority to issue IDs. We're going to do everything we can to ensure that every Montgomery County voter who is eligible to vote can vote," Shapiro said.
Additional locations beyond Upper Providence facility are likely
The resolution, which authorizes Parkhouse to issue voter identification cards to any registered voters who reside in the county, leaves open the possibility that other county properties could be set up as temporary annexes or extensions of the Parkhouse in order to facilitate the distribution of identification cards at other locations around the county.
"[Chief Operating Officer] Lauren [Lambrugo] and [Communications Director] Frank [Custer] are going to issue details shortly in terms of how we're going to implement it. We've got to work through the details in terms of the location or locations and all the other issues," Shapiro said.
"It is safe to assume Parkhouse will not be the only location," Custer said in an email message. Implementation of the program is scheduled to begin October 1.
The identification cards will only be issued to the county's registered voters, and will fulfill the state identification requirements at the polls, a release from the county said. However, if the resolution withstands any legal challenges, it will likely serve as an example for other counties to follow throughout the state.
Shapiro hailed the action in a statement distributed to the media at the Thursday night meeting.
"I continually hear from voters who are having trouble securing a proper ID card to vote," he said. "While my opposition to the Voter ID law is well-documented, I took an oath to uphold all the laws. Tonight's unanimous decision by our board simply ensures the rights of eligible Montgomery County voters."
Commissioner Leslie Richards, chair of the county's Election Board, also supported the resolution, as did commissioner Bruce Castor. Castor says that while he "is all about the law," he also believes the program is legal.
"The Pennsylvania Voter ID law permits this course of action, I believe we are following the law and making it as easy as possible to obtain voter ID," Castor said.