Pa. voter ID opponents appeal to high court

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Challengers seeking to block the new voter ID law argued in a filing with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Thursday that a lower court decision applied the wrong legal standards in assessing the potential harm of the requirement.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and other opponents of the law requiring photo identification at the polls are appealing the decision of a Commonwealth Court judge that the requirement should go forward for the Nov. 6 general election. They had argued that many voters lack acceptable identification and that some would be unable to acquire the documents in time. But Judge Robert Simpson ruled that obtaining and presenting identification is not an unconstitutional burden and allowed the law to proceed.

The voter ID proposal passed the Legislature with the support of Republicans, who said it would protect the integrity of elections. Democrats and advocates for the poor vigorously opposed the measure, arguing it would prevent vulnerable -- but eligible -- voters from casting their ballots.

In a legal brief filed on Thursday, the groups challenging the law asserted that the Commonwealth Court was incorrect in requiring them to show the law would cause "inevitable" -- rather than "immediate" -- harm. They argued, too, that the lower court erred in declining to hold that voting meets the legal standard of a fundamental right.

"It really goes to whether the evidence we put forward at trial is sufficient to issue the preliminary injunction," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and an attorney in the case.

A response from the state is due next week.

The high court has scheduled oral arguments in the case for Sept. 13 in Philadelphia. Michael Dimino, an associate professor of law at Widener University's Harrisburg campus, said the date shows the court considers the issue important -- though not that they favor a side.

"They put it on a very expedited briefing schedule. That's good news for the ACLU," Mr. Dimino said. "If they're going to win, then they're going to be able to stop this law from going into effect in November."

Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne University School of Law, said that given the state's acknowledgment that it knows of no cases of voter impersonation -- the type of fraud addressed by voter ID laws -- a conclusion that the law would disenfranchise many voters could convince the court to postpone implementation.

"If they conclude that a significant chunk of voters is going to be disenfranchised because this law has not been fleshed out properly, then there would be a lot to recommend just issuing an injunction and letting the kinks be worked out after this election, in time for the next election," he said.

Mr. Gormley said the fact that the November election involves not just state but federal offices could prompt the court to exercise particular caution in assessing a burden to voting.

"[The court] has to recognize that this isn't an election for state auditor general or something like that. This is an election for president of the United States, and so it's going to have to tread cautiously."

As the suit proceeds in state court, the Pennsylvania law faces additional scrutiny in a review by the U.S. Department of Justice for discrimination against minorities. On Thursday, a federal court struck down a Texas voter ID law, which it called the most stringent in the nation, on the grounds that it discriminates against low-income blacks and Hispanics.

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