Voter ID law back in Pa. court

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Pennsylvania's suspended voter identification requirements go back to court this week, as critics try to put a final stake through the heart of the rules and the state seeks to deploy them by next year, when key races for governor and Congress will be back on the ballot.

Opponents won a major battle last fall when the state Supreme Court kicked their voter ID challenge back to an appellate court, which then suspended the regulations for November's presidential race. The latest Commonwealth Court trial on their attempts to have the rules finally judged an unconstitutional barrier to the right to vote begins today.

Gov. Tom Corbett and other Republican defenders of the rules say they are necessary to ward off voter fraud and are not burdensome for 21st-century residents accustomed to showing identification. The GOP-controlled Legislature and Mr. Corbett approved the law in March 2012 requiring all voters to show photo ID at the polls, which could include driver's licenses, U.S. passports, and military, government and state-affiliated nursing home and university cards with expiration dates.

The same IDs have to be shown by first-time voters at polling places.

Just as it did last year, state attorneys arguing in favor of the law -- who include lawyers from the office of Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat -- have said that they know of no incidents of in-person voter fraud in state polling places. That includes the last two election and primary dates in November and May.

Not a single Democrat voted for the law, which is among the strictest state voter ID regulations nationwide. Other states leaven the requirements by mailing all voters acceptable IDs; allowing them to sign affidavits when they don't bring IDs to the polls; providing mobile ID centers; and other moves.

Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson initially let the new law stand last year, partially due to state efforts to offer residents free IDs good only for voting. In September, the state Supreme Court questioned the state's ability to fully distribute those IDs and sent the case back to the judge. He then suspended the requirements for the November 2012 elections, saying he expected the state to issue more IDs than it did.

Numbers again will be key to opponents in the new trial: Relatively few new IDs have been issued since the law was approved, they argue, and many thousands of registered voters are still without acceptable IDs. They will note that the 2012 law does not mention the free IDs -- they were devised by voting administrators after the bill was approved -- and will argue further that the law is unduly restrictive and unconstitutionally bars some of those registered from voting.

"This lawsuit is really about a bad law, that is badly written, that will lead to only one result: that thousands will lose the right to vote," said Michael Rubin of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Arnold & Porter, one of the attorneys working with the ACLU on the case.

A pretrial brief from the opponents says the Department of State, which is in charge of implementing the new law, has internally estimated that up to 410,000 registered voters do not have PennDOT identification, but as of the first week of June the state had issued a total of 16,754 new voting-only IDs.

While estimates vary as to exactly how many voters don't have the needed identification, "whatever the number is, it's in the hundreds of thousands," said Mr. Rubin, speaking Friday on a conference call about the case with reporters.

State attorneys defending the law say it's clearly constitutional, as the U.S. Supreme Court approved a similar voter ID law in Indiana in 2008. They argue further that the state Supreme Court was not concerned about the law's legality when it put the brakes on in September, but rather if state officials could adequately implement the law and educate voters about it by November.

Election officials statewide have notified voters of the bill's requirements in two primaries and a general election since the bill was approved, the state notes in its pretrial brief.

The defendants cast arguments about the numbers of voters without ID as a red herring: No one can know how many voters without PennDOT IDs have other forms of acceptable identification, they argue, and all those without any ID have a public avenue for obtaining them. The voting-only IDs are issued at driver's license centers to voters who present their Social Security numbers.

"The reality is anybody who is an eligible voter and wants an ID can get one free of charge. That is liberal access and that's the constitutional issue here," said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, spokesman for the governor's office of general counsel.

The attorney general's office is leading the defense. Ms. Kane released a statement Friday saying she believes voter ID is constitutional, unlike the state Defense of Marriage Act, which she announced Thursday she would not defend against a lawsuit filed in federal court.

"There is a key difference between the two. The Pennsylvania Voter ID law is, on its face, constitutional. My concern with the Voter ID law has always been its implementation," she stated.

The latest trial is expected to take two weeks, with Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley presiding.

Much of the argument should be similar to last year's: Opponents will present witnesses from urban and rural areas who are registered to vote but cannot travel easily to PennDOT locations to obtain IDs. They also will note how there are only 71 license centers statewide for obtaining free IDs, with nine of the state's 67 counties having no license centers and 11 having centers open one day per week.

Legal filings from opponents also include the statement last year from House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, that the law was "going to allow Gov. [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania" in the 2012 presidential race.

Opponents have already asked Judge McGinley to suspend the law -- regardless of the outcome of their suit -- for the statewide municipal elections Nov. 5. They expect a ruling on that request in August, allowing for appeals before the general election.

The judge's ruling on the overall constitutionality of the voter ID law may not come until later in the fall or early next year.

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. Kate Giammarise contributed from Harrisburg.


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