Before 1965, people in Alabama had to pass a literacy test before they could vote, and some questions were challenging.
How many states had to ratify the U.S. Constitution for it to take effect? What limit does the Constitution impose of the size of the District of Columbia? If the president is impeached, who presides at the trial?
I always felt it would be a good idea to make people pass a test before they vote. If voters had a rudimentary understanding of civics, we would not wind up with horrors like George W. Bush, Rod Blagojevich or most of the Pennsylvania Legislature.
There was one little problem with the Alabama test. Most whites were not required to take it.
Other measures aimed at disenfranchising nonwhites or poor whites included poll taxes and systematic intimidation that persisted, especially in the Deep South, from the Reconstruction period to the 1950s, when I spent time there. Churches where voter registration drives were organized were burned by thugs as police officers looked the other way, and the organizers could be beaten or murdered. Most of those forms of discrimination subsided after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On the other side of the coin, voting has been made too easy, especially in urban areas in the North, where Democrats tend to dominate the political scene.
"Vote early and often" is often attributed to Al Capone, who kept his pals in power in Chicago through unabashed voter fraud. Long before that, it was a mantra of New York's William "Boss" Tweed, whose Tammany Hall Democratic Party machine perfected the technique of paying dregs to vote repeatedly by using the names of dead people — a technique still used in Philadelphia when I worked there in the 1970s.
Therefore, it was not surprising that House Bill 934 was pushed mainly by Republicans in the state Legislature.
The measure, which would require that most voters have photo identification, was passed 26-23 by the state Senate last Wednesday and was headed for passage in the House on Tuesday. Among those 23 dissenters in the Senate, only three were Republicans, including Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks and Montgomery. Not a single Senate Democrat voted for the bill.
As briefly reported in The Morning Call on Tuesday, the Obama administration has moved to block such voter ID laws already enacted in other states — at the behest, I bet, of our latter-day Boss Tweeds.
Democrats and those aligned with them assailed the Pennsylvania measure.
Common Cause/PA called it "the Voter Suppression Act" and said it will disenfranchise "tens of thousands of legitimate voters." An AFL-CIO release called Sen. Daryl Metcalfe, the bill's author, the "poster boy for corporate influence on your voting rights" and said HB 934 "will effectively disenfranchise 691,000 Pennsylvanians."
That's a lot by even Al Capone standards, but I could not see how the bill would disenfranchise any legitimate voters at all.
For example, voters can be exempted from the photo ID rule for religious reasons, such as Amish beliefs against graven images. If somebody shows up without the required identification, he or she can use a provisional ballot, which would be voided if valid ID is not presented within six days.
As for the claim that 691,000 state voters do not have photo ID, a staffer in Metcalfe's office, asking not to be named, told me that only "0.929 percent of eligible voters do not have a PennDOT ID for driving," and that represents only 89,000 people.
Even if those figures are way off, there still would be no excuse for a voter not having ID. "The Department of Transportation," the bill requires, "shall issue an identification card … at no cost to any registered elector" who seeks one. Other provisions protect the rights of absentee voters, military people, and so forth.
Under this bill, as far as I can tell, there is no way a legitimate voter can be prevented from obtaining identification or from otherwise verifying that he or she is qualified to vote — albeit only once per election.
The only problem it poses will be to those mobilized to vote multiple times. Boss Tweed and other crooks who pull politicians' strings, I am sure, would not like this bill, but the only people it disenfranchises are those who cheat or who are too lazy to ask PennDOT for a free ID card.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.