Appeals judge set to rule on legitimacy of Pa.'s new voter ID law
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HARRISBURG -- The state appellate judge weighing whether to stop Pennsylvania's new photo identification requirement for voters zeroed in on the role of provisional ballots Thursday as he suggested undoing a narrow section of that law.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson wrapped up the second and final day of the legal challenge's latest hearing by interrogating attorneys as to how he could alter the photo identification requirement to prevent voter disenfranchisement.
He focused largely on the section of the 6-month-old law stating that anyone who arrives at the polls on Nov. 6 without a photo ID would be able to vote by provisional ballot, and that their ballot would be counted only if they can show photo ID within six days of the election.
"Provisional ballots seem to be the sticking point," Judge Simpson said. "It's not the smoothest part of [the law]."
One solution he offered may be that, for the upcoming election only, any voter without ID could use a provisional ballot without requiring them to later furnish a photo ID card. Those ballots would still be checked to ensure that all came from registered voters.
The latest court hearing, which began on Tuesday, is the result of a state Supreme Court decision last week to send the case back for further review as to whether state officials have made it easy enough for those lacking photo ID to obtain an appropriate card.
Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups challenging the law said that mandate gave the judge "very little wiggle room" to decide against an injunction if he heard testimony indicating that there were hurdles to voters seeking ID.
The judge indicated that he did not want to overturn the entire statute, and would prefer to focus on "the disenfranchising part." He said efforts to educate the public about the requirement should continue since the law may be found to be constitutional once a full trial occurs.
He acknowledged that broadening the rules for provisional ballots could strain that system, noting a prediction from Allegheny County elections chief Mark Wolosik during the prior hearing that the number of local provisional ballots could soar as high as 35,000.
The alternative ballot system "may be asked to deal with more people than was intended," the judge said.
Commonwealth lawyers offered a variation on the judge's temporary solution. Voters without ID could vote by provisional ballot, and would either need to show their photo ID or return a document affirming that they were unable to obtain an ID in order for the ballot to be counted.
Such a tweak would avoid the "destruction and chaos" of halting the entire law five weeks before a presidential election, said Alicia Hickok, counsel for Gov. Tom Corbett's administration.
Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, responded that problems could arise from relying on provisional ballots, arguing that some won't know whether their vote counted and others may be discouraged from voting entirely.
"We do not see a remedy short of enjoining enforcement," he said. "What's the message to the public? The message to the public needs to be no ID is required."
During his final arguments, Mr. Walczak pointed in part back to the parade of witnesses offered throughout Thursday to relay obstacles encountered in attempts to secure photo identification cards.
The new law, signed in March, requires all voters to show a state- or federal-issued photo ID card, or a photo ID with an expiration date from a state university, personal care facilities or municipal government.
Voters and activists who have been aiding those seeking ID recounted receiving unclear and inaccurate instructions from state Department of Transportation employees, waiting for hours to learn that they needed other documents and being charged for the free ID card.
Many of those testifying were from Philadelphia, where about 40 percent of the 11,000 new voter ID cards have been issued. But 19-year-old Jessica Hockenbury of Wilkinsburg recounted that she also encountered difficulties attempting to navigate Pittsburgh's Smithfield Street PennDOT office.
Ms. Hockenbury, who had only one document proving her residence instead of the requisite two, said she was told during her initial visit that the location "was not doing that anymore" when she inquired about the free voter IDs.
She later was given improper paperwork needed to prove her residence, only acquiring her ID card after a staffer from the community group One Pittsburgh tracked down the appropriate form.
PennDOT deputy secretary Kurt Myers later testified that agency employees were "absolutely not" instructed to tell customers that free ID cards were not available.
With arguments completed, attorneys must file some final paperwork by the end of today. Judge Simpson has until Tuesday to issue an updated opinion.
First Published September 28, 2012 12:00 am