Pennsylvania voter ID law returned to lower court

Commonwealth judges told to test law for fairness


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HARRISBURG -- It's not enough that state officials told a judge they would make identification available to voters, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said on Tuesday as it ordered a lower court to again consider stopping the voter ID law.

Instead, the justices wrote, the Commonwealth Court must review how a new ID has been made available and whether it still believes the law will allow all legitimate votes to count. If not, the Supreme Court wrote, Pennsylvania's new law must be halted.

The high court did not rule on the constitutionality of the law, but it raised concerns about the state's ability to implement parts of the law requiring the provision of free identification cards to voters without them. In reviewing the August decision by a Commonwealth Court judge to let the law go forward, the justices wrote they were not satisfied by the reliance upon assurances from state officials that they would educate voters and remove barriers to obtaining identification.

The unsigned order, which drew dissents from two justices who wrote that the law should be stopped, instructed the Commonwealth Court to revisit the case by considering if the procedures for offering a new form of identification meet the law's requirements of easy accessibility.

It states also that "there is little disagreement" that the voters who could lack access to identification include "members of some of the most vulnerable segments of our society," including the elderly, the poor and people who are disabled.

The order sets a deadline of Oct. 2 for the lower court to make its decision.

The requirement that voters show an acceptable form of identification remains law in Pennsylvania, and the Department of State, which oversees elections, responded to the order by saying it would continue efforts to educate residents and provide ID. But opponents of the law were optimistic about the order.

"The commonwealth should have a pretty steep burden to demonstrate all voters on Election Day will have the kind of ID they need to vote," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit.

A spokesman for the attorney general said the order is under review.

Two Democratic justices dissented from the unsigned order, leaving three Republicans and one Democrat in the majority. The seventh justice, Joan Orie Melvin, has been suspended.

In a dissenting statement, joined by Justice Seamus McCaffery, Justice Debra McCloskey Todd wrote that she would reverse the lower court's decision, not return the matter for further consideration. She wrote of an "impending near-certain loss of voting rights" and said the court was allowing the state essentially to ignore the short timeline before the election.

"The eyes of the nation are upon us, and this Court has chosen to punt rather than to act," she wrote.

Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University School of Law, said the order shows that both the dissenters and the majority are troubled by how the law has been implemented.

"It raises serious concerns with the way it is being implemented on the eve of presidential and state elections," he said. "It sends the matter back to the Commonwealth Court for further hearings with a clear subtext that there are potential problems here and the Commonwealth Court needs to look very seriously at them."

The voter ID measure passed the Legislature over Democratic opposition and was signed into law in March by Gov. Tom Corbett. In a statement, Mr. Corbett said his administration would continue educating voters and helping them obtain identification.

"I am pleased that the state Supreme Court recognized that we have been working hard, and in good faith, to implement the voter ID law," he said.

Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans, said the proceedings were a victory because the attorney for the groups challenging the law told the justices during oral arguments that voter ID laws were not in themselves unconstitutional.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said he was disappointed the law had not been thrown out but was hopeful the lower court would reconsider.

"The evidence presented demonstrates that tens and tens of thousands of folks will be disenfranchised, and there's no mechanism in place to address that," Mr. Costa said. "As a result, this law is not ready to be implemented."

From the time the voter ID requirement became law through Friday, the Department of Transportation issued 8,165 secure identification cards free to voters, said Jan McKnight, an agency spokeswoman. It has issued 807 of the new identification noted by the Supreme Court, authorized by the Department of State and requiring less proof of identity, since it became available late August, she said. In Allegheny County, the agency has issued 970 secure IDs and 84 Department of State IDs to voters.

A spokesman for the Department of State said the agency's efforts at education and providing IDs will allow voters to comply with the law.

"We believe that every registered voter who requires an ID for voting purposes will be able to get one for the November election," spokesman Matthew Keeler said.

state

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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