Pennsylvania voter ID law should go forward, Commonwealth Court rules

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HARRISBURG -- A Commonwealth Court judge has ruled in favor of the state's new law requiring photo identification at the polls, declaring that acquiring and presenting the ID cards is not an unconstitutional burden on voters.

In his 70-page opinion, Judge Robert Simpson, who presided over a week-long hearing that sought to overturn the five-month-old law, decided against granting an injunction that would have prevented the law from going into effect for the Nov. 6 general election.

He wrote that opponents of the new law, who argued that too many voters lack and would not be able to acquire acceptable ID cards, "did not establish ... that disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable."

The judge added that he believed that several of the individuals presented as examples of those unable to travel to obtain a photo ID card would qualify for absentee voting. Those voting absentee must write their state ID card number or last four digits of their Social Security card on their ballot, or include a copy of another acceptable ID card.

If they instead go to the polls without an ID card, they could vote using provisional ballot, he wrote, adding that any issues could be resolved afterward on a case-by-case basis.

"I am not convinced any of the individual petitioners or other witnesses will not have their votes counted in the general election," the judge wrote, later describing the statute as "merely an election regulation to verify a voter's identity."

The decision regarding the controversial statute is expected to be promptly appealed to the state Supreme Court in an effort to obtain a final ruling from the top court before the general election.

That panel is evenly split between three Democrats and three Republicans with the suspension of Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican.

A majority vote of four justices would be needed to halt the law's implementation.

Judge Simpson noted the likelihood of that appeal in his decision, stating that stopping the law now -- and in turn the educational efforts underway by state officials -- while an appeal is under review would cause "great injury" should the law again be upheld in the Supreme Court.

In a statement shortly after the decision was released, officials with the ACLU confirmed that they plan to appeal.

"Given clear evidence that impersonation fraud is not a problem, we had hoped that the court would show greater concern for the hundreds of thousands of voters who will be disenfranchised by this law," Witold Walczak, legal director of the state's ACLU chapter.

Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, issued a statement this morning saying that the decision will allow the state to continue concentrating on educating voters.

"Now that the court has upheld the constitutionality of the law, we can continue to focus our attention on ensuring that every Pennsylvania citizen who wants to vote has the identification necessary to make sure their vote counts," he said.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, whose department oversees elections in Pennsylvania, said she was "pleased" the court upheld the law though she testified in the case that she did not fully understand it.

"This law will reinforce the principle of one person, one vote," she said. "By giving us a reliable way to verify the identity of each voter, the voter ID law will enhance confidence in our elections.

Oakmont Democrat Frank Dermody, the House minority leader, said Pennsylvanians must continue to fight the law's implementation.

"Today's ruling is a travesty not just for those Pennsylvanians whose right to vote will be stripped away by this law but for all Pennsylvanians and all American citizens," Mr. Dermody said in a written statement. "A threat to one person's right to vote is a threat to us all."

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said Judge Simpson's decision would have a disproportionate and negative impact on Allegheny County.

"The Commonwealth itself has stated that more than 100,000 voters in Allegheny County could face problems voting in November because of the ID law," she said in a statement. "Just one vote denied is irreparable harm. Moreover, counties are burdened with the cost of implementation and the duty to prevent chaos at the polls in November."

The Republican-backed measure Mr. Corbett signed into law in March requires voters to show photo identification that includes an expiration date and that was issued by the state or federal government, a municipal employer, a Pennsylvania university or a nursing home.

Voters who arrive at the polls without an acceptable ID can cast provisional ballots that will count if the voter verifies their identity within six days. Previously, identification was required the first time a voter visited a polling site, but could include a utility bill or other non-photo option.

Since the law took effect, the Department of State has unveiled new paths for people to obtain an ID that meets the law's requirements, including creating a yet-to-be-issued card specifically for voting purposes. Agency officials also announced that drivers whose licenses expired in 1990 or later can get a new ID without showing a birth certificate or other identification.

But several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the photo-identification requirements would place too heavy a burden on those who currently lack adequate ID cards. They filed suit in May.

Attorneys for the law's opponents argued last month that requiring photo identification could disenfranchise many Pennsylvania voters, particularly those who are poor, uneducated, Hispanic and female.

They pointed to shifting estimates from the Department of State on how many voters likely do not have a state-issued ID card, and presented witnesses who testified about their difficulties attempting to obtain the documents necessary to apply for a Pennsylvania photo ID card.

State officials defended the law, countering that the requirement to show photo identification applies equally to all voters. While some people may need to go through the effort of obtaining identification, that does not make the law unconstitutional, argued Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley during the hearing.

The state's chapter of the ACLU was joined by the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and the Washington, D.C., law firm of Arnold & Porter in the lawsuit.

A separate legal challenge, filed by Democrats on the Allegheny County Board of Elections, still is pending in Commonwealth Court.

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Harrisburg Bureau Chief Laura Olson: or 717-787-4254. First Published August 15, 2012 1:15 PM


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