Voter ID, rogues & strumpets

Published by Tim McNulty on .


One of the cases Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson pointed to in upholding the state's new voter ID law last month was Patterson v. Barlow, from 1869, which involved complicated voter registrations for Philadelphia that were different from those elsewhere in the state. Simpson cites Patterson repeatedly in pages 25-28 of his decision (part is above) to show that it's acceptable for the Legislature to determine registration rules.

Sounds good. Except -- as Pitt law prof Jessie Allen writes in an op-ed in today's PG -- there's a lot more to Patterson, and the Supreme Court decision upholding it back then, which should give pause to the 6 Supreme Court justices meeting Thursday on the latest voter bill. Writes Allen:

The law approved in Patterson enacted a complicated set of registration procedures for Philadelphia (with its large working-class and immigrant populations) and a simpler procedure for the rest of the state. Equally outrageous, the law required any would-be voter who gave a hotel or boarding house as his address to go through an arduous verification process, including getting two "private householders" to swear that he was qualified to vote. That process effectively disenfranchised the workmen who filled the city boarding houses at the end of the 19th century.

Amazingly, in Patterson the Supreme Court went out of its way to clarify -- and endorse -- the law's biased approach. The opinion justifies a tougher process for Philadelphia voters because "rogues and strumpets do not nightly traverse the deserted highways of the farmer. Low inns, restaurants, sailors' boarding-houses and houses of ill fame do not abound in rural precincts, ready to pour out on election day their pestilent hordes."

For good measure, the court explained that to overturn the tighter procedures for Philadelphia voters "would be to place the vicious vagrant, the wandering Arabs, the Tartar hordes of our large cities, on a level with the virtuous and good man."

. . . Wrenched out of context, the legal language that the Commonwealth Court judge chose to quote from Patterson sounds like a fair basis for upholding the new voter ID law. But, in fact, the old Patterson case represents the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's shameful failure to protect elections from a law designed to make voting harder for some people than for others.

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