Saturday, August 4, 2012

Name discrepancy: the ugly Election Day surprise?

One of the biggest unanswered questions about Pennsylvania Voter ID is what happens on Election Day when the name on a voter's driver's license doesn't quite match his or her voter registration.

Maiden names don't match married names. Multiple family names (common among Latinos) get omitted on one form or the other.  Name order gets reversed (common among Asian immigrants) because of confusion on forms. And millions of people just go by different names in different contexts.

To borrow a real life example from the Voter ID trial, what if you're registered as Tia Sutter, but your id says Christine Sutter?

This sort of thing is very common. Of the 758,000 Pennsylvania voters who couldn't be found in the state's driver's license and ID database, many in fact have IDs -- but under a different name.

You may assume, as I did, that poll workers will exercise common sense on election day, will recognize that Tia Sutter is Christine Sutter, and let her vote.

But that is a questionable assumption. The law as enacted allows no wiggle room on the name. It says the name on the ID must "substantially conform to the name of the individual as it appears in the district register."

Do the poll workers get to interpret "substantially" for themselves? Can they vouch for the 90-year-old who's been voting for 65 years but whose ID and registration don't match? The law has no language authorizing this.

What is more likely is the standard will be very legalistic and picky, and that poll workers will not have any discretion.

Especially if the presidential election in Pennsylvania is close,  the national political parties will send hordes of volunteers -- many of them lawyers -- to key polling places on Election Day. They will sit at the table with the poll workers, look over their shoulders and litigate every name that doesn't match.

Nobody will actually say this, but the job of Republican Party election monitors sent to Obama-friendly Philadelphia precincts will be to disqualify as many voters as possible. Voter ID gives them tens of thousands, perhaps 100,000, voters they can challenge.

So if the poll workers can't decide who gets to vote, who does? Who decides what "substantially conform" means? If there are state regulations issued on this question,  they will come from the office of Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele, a conservative Republican who has been accused before of trying to suppress African-American voter turnout by moving a polling place away from historically black Lincoln University.

There is no reason to expect Aichele will be nice about it. The whole underlying philosophy of Voter ID is that the burden will be on voters to prove, legally -- as in, admissible in a courtroom -- that they are who they say they are, or they lose their vote.

One possible "solution" is that Aichele's office will require a name affidavit, a notarized legal document, often prepared by a lawyer, that certifies that Terri Smith (unmarried) is the same person as Terri Jones (married), or "Tia" is "Christine." If you've refinanced a mortgage recently, there's a good chance you signed a name affidavit.

It could be a quite a boon for notaries and lawyers, given that the potential market for these documents would be some portion of 758,000 Pennsylvania voters.

But for voters, not so much. Name discrepancy could hit people who least suspect they have a problem.  They may have gotten a letter from Aichele's office but they'll ignore it because they have a driver's license. If they're diligent, they'll check their voter registration card -- which in Philadelphia doesn't even contain their full name -- and find no reason to worry.

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