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Making Karl Happy

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Karl Rove.jpgThe genius of Karl Rove was that he understood the power of small numbers.  While other political strategists devised ways to move masses of voters, Rove concentrated on fractions -- small slices of voters to add to his base of support or to subtract from

his opponent's base.

This explains why Rove, in his time as President Bush's political guru, was the moving force behind the voter ID movement in the United States.

In 2002, a concentrated campaign began to convince Americans that there was widespread voter fraud. Most of the accusations emanated from the "non-partisan" American Center for Voting Rights, which turned out to be a Republican front group.

It's also why the Bush White House, through then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, began pressuring U.S. Attorneys around the country to place emphasis on tracking down cases of voter fraud -- and ousted federal prosecutors who balked. Gonzales later lost his job in part because of those firings.

This anti-vote fraud effort generated a lot of publicity, but few results.

In 2002, the Justice Department began a program to aggressively pursue even the smallest cases of vote fraud.  The yield was small: 86 convictions over the next five years, most of them involving small-potato cases.  An example: a sheriff's candidate in West Virginia who bribed 20 voters to cast their ballots for him. Others involved absentee ballot fraud.  There were no cases of voter impersonation -- of John Smith pretending he was Victor Jones.

Still, state legislatures across the country began passing laws to require voters to show a photographic ID in order to vote.  Nominally, these measures were designed to stem the

epidemic of vote fraud. In reality, there was no epidemic. The laws had a political intent. They were designed suppress voter turnout, especially among poor, minority and elderly voters who tended to vote Democratic. They exist mostly to cut a few slices from the vote of Democratic candidates.

The laws were first passed in states that had Republicans in control of the legislature and the governor's office. Sometimes they were struck down by the courts. Sometimes they led to embarrassing incidents, like the time four Roman Catholic nuns were turned away from a polling place in Indiana because they lacked photo IDs.

When Democrat Ed Rendell was governor, he vetoed a photo ID bill passed by Republicans in the legislature. This year, with Republican Tom Corbett as governor, the bill was revived and is likely to be signed in the next two weeks. [Update: Corbett signed the bill into law Wednesday, March 14]

The bill requires all voters to show a photo ID -- a driver's license, a student ID, a work ID -- every time they go to vote. If you cannot produce one, you will be allowed to cast a provisional ballot and given six days to go to your county's Board of Elections and prove you are who you say you are.

For many people, this is a no-sweat provision. Who, in this day and age, does not have at least a driver's license? The answer will surprise you: In Pennsylvania, 17 percent of adults -- about 1.6 million people -- do not have a driver's license.

The percentage is much higher in Philadelphia: four out of 10 adults -- about 470,000 people -- do not have licenses.

I have good news for those folks, though. The bill allows you to get a free photo ID from the state and one place to get one is at your local PennDOT Motor Vehicle office. I am sure those PennDOT personnel will be happy to snap 1.6 million photos between now and Election Day in November. Just drive over there today. Oops! On second thought, better take a cab or bus

Some people without driver's licenses will be able to produce another photo ID. Or, perhaps, if they are elderly or unemployed or poor they will have none.

Passage of the bill comes just in time for the Republicans and will help solve a big problem they have. It is called Philadelphia.

If Pennsylvania is a blue state, then Philadelphia is purple. It regularly provides huge margins for Democratic candidates. In 2008, for instance, John McCain got only 16 percent of the votes cast in the city.

Barack Obama defeated McCain by a margin of 478,000 votes in the city.

In that election, 717,329 Philadelphians voted, officially a turnout of 64 percent.

One huge factor in the Philadelphia is the black vote. It used to be that you didn't need to suppress the vote among blacks in the city because they suppressed it themselves. They turned out in much lower numbers than whites. That began to change in the 1980s. These days black turnout in many wards equals or exceeds white turnout.

Blacks are what political candidates call behavioral voters. They almost always vote for the Democratic candidate. Four years ago, Obama got 98 percent of the black vote in the city. But, black voters gave John Kerry 98 percent of their vote and Al Gore 97 percent.

But, 2008 was different than previous years because Obama was the first serious African-American to run for President and his presence at the top of the ballot juiced black turnout to new records.

Obama will get 98 percent of the black vote this year in Philadelphia, but suppose you could shave a few points off the vote total in the city? Suppose turnout this year is 8 to 10 points lower than in 2008?

If it is, part of the reason will be the new vote ID law. It will have its intended effect. It will suppress turnout. There is no doubt about that.

And that would make Karl Rove very happy.

-- Tom Ferrick

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