A few days after upstart Republican Al Schmidt clobbered incumbent Joseph Duda and wrenched away the tightly held (by the GOP establishment) position of City Commissioner in last November’s general election, one source said to this reporter something like this: People think Al Schmidt’s some kind of progressive. But just you wait: He’s a snake in the grass.
Something about the quotation stuck. Schmidt, after all, is a kind of political enigma here in Philadelphia: a Republican who’s managed to capture the attention, imagination and even votes of both restless Philly Republicans and local progressives, many of whom noticed over the last year that Schmidt had the habit — unusual among the entrenched political establishment of both parties — of answering questions, returning phone calls and engaging in intelligent, nuanced debate about his ideas.
Still, he was (and remains) a Republican. And that raised an important question during his campaign, since the three City Commissioners have the incredibly sensitive job of running local elections: What did Schmidt think of laws requiring photo ID at polling places, being pushed by members of his own party in Harrisburg?
Schmidt said at the time that he opposed the voter-ID law “as it was written,” noting that it was an “unfunded mandate.” Which meant, if you thought about it, that he didn’t necessarily oppose it because its obvious intent — here and in every state considering such legislation — was to squelch Democratic votes.
Since he defeated Duda, Schmidt has kept a relatively low profile — until last Wednesday, that is, when he held a sudden press conference to introduce a report compiled by his office alleging to have uncovered “hundreds” of cases of “voting irregularities” and “voter fraud.” The response from state Republicans was predictable and virtually immediate. Schmidt’s report, declared state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the primary sponsor of a recently passed photo-ID law, “finally confirms what leading Democrat opponents of voter ID and those in the mainstream media have been denying all along” — that is, that fraud isn’t a problem worthy of addressing with restrictive voting requirements.
“Philadelphia,” Metcalfe added, “is without question one of our nation’s most infested epicenters for rampant election fraud and corruption.”
It is the specter of voter fraud that has become the GOP’s justification for laws all over the country requiring photo ID at the polls — “specter” because, while spooky in the abstract, its existence is largely a fiction of imagination. Actual voter fraud — in which a person pretends to be someone else in order to steal their vote, votes more than once or votes without being legally registered — has been proven and documented so few times nationally that it’s not clear it’s even statistically significant, let alone a problem in need of legislative action.
That hasn’t stopped several state legislatures, led by Republicans coordinating with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), itself funded in part by the ultra-conservative and fabulously wealthy Koch brothers — get the picture? — from passing laws requiring government-issued photo identification at polling places. Studies have found that such laws disproportionately affect the elderly, the poor and minorities. In Pennsylvania alone, nearly 760,000 voters — or 9 percent of the entire voting population — don’t have PennDOT IDs, and that percentage doubles in heavily Democratic Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, requiring voter ID doesn’t necessarily address the concerns about purported voter fraud the requirement is purportedly aimed at stopping: Should a person manage to register in two locations, for example, he or she could vote twice, with ID. The only thing voter ID might stop is voter impersonation — but Schmidt found no new evidence of that (though, to be fair, he says he wasn’t looking for it). Schmidt’s report contained no “findings” of voter impersonation other than a case originating in 2007, which had already been uncovered.
Other than that, it cited seven cases — over 10 years — in which noncitizens voted, and one case in which someone voted in two divisions. Schmidt’s reference to “hundreds” of voting irregularities comes from his and Democratic City Commissioner Stephanie Singer’s findings earlier this year that hundreds of polling places had registered more votes cast than signatures collected in poll books. That’s a disturbing finding, but the meaning of it is unclear. Schmidt himself acknowledges that many of these extra votes (or missing poll-book signatures) might be attributed to simple error.
Making things murkier still, Schmidt’s report gives no numerical breakdown of what his team found as they assessed these “over-votes.” Some seemed to be errors, Schmidt says, but he won’t say what proportion, claiming that doing so would be irresponsible, leading readers to extrapolate from his sample to the entire city.
But, of course, readers who happen to be Republican lawmakers are already doing that. On Monday, WHYY’s Dave Davies pointed out a fundraising appeal from state Republican chairman Robert Gleason, claiming that “Philadelphia officials released an alarming report showing hundreds of cases of fraud had occurred during the last election.” This, as Davies pointed out, is simply not true.
Meanwhile, it’s high time, perhaps, to revisit an old question: Is Al Schmidt a snake in the grass after all?
Schmidt’s report has obviously given the proponents of voting requirements in Pennsylvania cover — sloppy and inconclusive as that cover may be — for their positions. But Schmidt denies that was his intent. “My job as an elected City Commissioner is to implement election law,” he told City Paper a couple of days ago. “The law is the law.”
He added that election integrity isn’t a partisan issue — or it shouldn’t be. “Especially in municipal elections here in Philadelphia, where there are primaries between good-government and progressive candidates and establishment candidates, I guarantee you everyone cares about voter fraud and voting irregularities.”
And he’s got a point: Allegations of voting irregularities — machine manipulation, voter misdirection and, yes, even voter impersonation — have dogged Philly elections for decades. Julie Welker, a Fairmount real-estate broker who ran for the 5th District City Council seat first against John Street and later against Darrell Clarke, claimed in a 1999 federal lawsuit that Clarke had won, in part, thanks to more than 100 votes registered to abandoned houses. (A judge dismissed the case in 2000.) Accusations of voter fraud, intimidation and other muckery in the city’s 180th legislative district, currently represented by state Rep. Angel Cruz, have surfaced frequently. And, the City Commissioners Office, under the decades-long control of chairwoman Marge Tartaglione, rarely pursued those claims in a meaningful and transparent way.
It isn’t a coincidence that the problem of “over-votes” turned up shortly after two insurgent candidates took over the City Commissioners Office; and while Schmidt’s findings do not, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute the rampant fraud foamy-mouthed legislators want us to envision, Schmidt’s report doesn’t prove the opposite, either.
The truth is that for decades no one has examined Philly elections closely — not before Schmidt’s report, not since. And whatever the political context, it’s hard to imagine anyone making the case that they shouldn’t be. Even if Schmidt is looking to offer up that cursed apple, he didn’t plant the tree.