Citizens look to courts for relief when governments threaten their rights. But those looking to Commonwealth Court to stop a flawed voter ID law passed by a Republican Legislature for political advantage were out of luck Wednesday.
Judge Robert Simpson, in a 70-page opinion based on evidence and arguments presented at a week-long hearing, rejected a request for injunctive relief, finding that the new law requiring photo identification for all voters is not unconstitutional.
Disappointing is too bland a word for his decision. The petitioners, both individuals and organizations such as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, seem certain to appeal to the state Supreme Court, but there's no guarantee the result will change.
Judge Simpson simply did not believe that Act 18, the voter ID law, would do any harm. He wrote, " ... based on the availability of absentee voting, provisional ballots and opportunities for judicial relief for those with special hardships, I am not convinced any of the individual petitioners or other witnesses will not have their votes counted in the general election."
But the judge did have some kind words for the way the case was presented. "Petitioners' counsel did an excellent job of 'putting a face' to those burdened by the voter ID requirement," he said. But, he added, at the end of the day he had to analyze the law.
It is not our role to critique his understanding of the law -- that is what the Supreme Court must do -- but Judge Simpson is right about how sympathetic some of those faces were. The judge did not mean to do it, but this was a reminder that the case played out in two courts, Commonwealth Court and the court of public opinion. In the second, the new law lost.
Tellingly, the state agreed in a court document that it knew of no cases of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania. That admission was not fatal to its legal case, but it is a shocker for the general public. It raises the question: Why then was the law passed? Unfortunately, when read together with House Majority Leader Mike Turzai's comment that the law would help Mitt Romney carry Pennsylvania, the conclusion appears plainly to be the discouragement of Democratic voters.
Perhaps equally shocking was the admission during the hearing by the state's top election official, Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, that she was not totally familiar with the new law.
Voting had better go well in this presidential election because the public faces at the polls on Nov. 6 could belong to highly irritated voters who will know which party to blame for the mess.