Justices question new voter ID law



PHILADELPHIA -- The justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court peppered attorneys arguing the voter ID dispute with questions Thursday as they considered a request to stop the law before the November elections.

The high court is the last venue for a claim that the state Constitution does not permit a new state law requiring voters to show one of several forms of photo identification at the polls. As they made their case, the groups appealing a lower court's decision upholding the law continued to argue the requirement would disenfranchise or burden many rightful voters, while attorneys for the state and its top officials disputed that claim and said the Constitution allows lawmakers to regulate elections through laws like the voter ID requirement.

Under questioning by the justices, David Gersch, an attorney representing the parties challenging the law, said that requiring photo identification at the polls is not in itself unconstitutional. But he said the Pennsylvania law and its implementation make it unacceptably difficult for many voters to acquire the needed documents.

"There's no problem requiring photo ID to vote," Mr. Gersch said. "The vice is in requiring ID that people don't have and have a hard time getting."

Chief Deputy Attorney General John Knorr, who defended the law, said the challengers had not met the legal test required to stop a law from taking effect. Asked if voting is a fundamental right with the accompanying legal protections, Mr. Knorr responded that while voting meets that standard, it still requires regulation by the state.

"The right to vote at its core is obviously fundamental," he said. "But not everything that affects that right is fundamental ... Elections in their nature cannot exist without pervasive state regulation, and fashioning that regulatory framework is the job of the Legislature."

The Pennsylvania law is only one example of the heightened voter identification requirements that have gained traction nationwide. It has attracted notice, however, for its comparatively strict provisions and in a populous state that has been considered a swing vote in presidential elections.

At times, the arguments featured frank back-and-forths between the justices and attorneys, as when Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, a Democrat, asserted that the voter ID law imposes a new burden on longtime voters.

"Sure, but the burden it seems to me is quite minimal," Mr. Knorr said.

"It's minimal if you already have a photo ID," Justice Todd responded.

"It's minimal even if you don't," Mr. Knorr said. "Most people can get photo IDs quite easily."

Like Justice Todd, Justice Seamus McCaffery, also a Democrat, seemed to express skepticism about the law, asking at one point: "Do we give deference to the Legislature, who, in what seems to me to be a political move, is now going to trample on the rights of our citizens?"

The Supreme Court is occupied by three Republican and three Democratic justices after the suspension of Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican who faces criminal charges. A 3-3 tie would affirm the lower court's decision to let the law stand.

During the arguments, the justices referred to an analysis by state agencies showing at least 91 percent of registered voters had state-issued identification. Asked how the state could succeed in its case if 9 percent of voters lack usable documents, Mr. Knorr said he believed the actual number was much lower, and he described efforts since the passage of the law to help people obtain identification.

With less than two months remaining before the Nov. 6 elections, attorneys on both sides of the case said they expect the court will rule quickly.

Opposition by labor and civil rights groups to the voter ID law was evident at a rally before the arguments, where Benjamin Jealous, the national president of the NAACP, told the crowd: "We must be very clear that what we're fighting for in this moment is democracy itself."

Betty Lee, a Philadelphia resident who attended the rally, said she believes the law will be overturned -- but that whatever happens, voters will turn out in force in November.

"We're in Philadelphia, where the Constitution was built," she said. "Do the right thing for the people."

Speaking to reporters after an appearance in Drexel Hill outside Philadelphia, Gov. Tom Corbett, who signed the law in March after its passage by fellow Republicans, said he continues to believe the law is justified by popular support and a need to protect elections.

"It makes sure that one person votes one time, and they are the person who they say they are," he said. "I think it's a requirement. The people of Pennsylvania think it's a requirement."

state

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141. First Published September 14, 2012 4:30 AM


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