Judge asks for ways to halt Pennsylvania's new voter ID law
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HARRISBURG -- While Tuesday's second-round arguments over the new voter ID law offered moments of deja vu to lawyers and witnesses, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson indicated at its conclusion that an alternative outcome remains possible.
Judge Simpson instructed attorneys for the commonwealth and for a coalition of groups challenging the law to be prepared to outline ways the law could be halted. The hearing resumes Thursday morning.
The state Supreme Court asked the judge to consider such an action when it returned the case to him last week. The justices requested a narrower look at whether the actions taken to implement the new statute have provided voters with "liberal access" to appropriate photo identification cards and to determine if voters may be disenfranchised.
- Under the revised requirements, any voter can request a state-issued ID card for solely voting purposes without having to first prove they do not qualify for other state ID cards. This does not prevent a voter from requesting a traditional state photo ID card if they prefer. Those driver's and non-driver ID cards can be used for purposes beyond voting but require showing a birth certificate and other documents.
- To apply for a Department of State, or voting-only, ID card:
- • An individual must go to a PennDOT licensing center and provide their name, date of birth, Social Security number, and address.
- • While the applicant waits, a PennDOT employee will contact the Department of State to confirm that the applicant is registered to vote.
- • If the applicant is confirmed as a voter, they will be issued a voting-only ID card.
- • If the applicant is NOT immediately confirmed as a voter, a voting-only ID card will be created and the applicant may be asked to fill out another voter registration form. The ID card and form will be sent to the Department of State, and when the voter's registration is verified or new registration form is processed, the ID card will be mailed to the voter.
"I think it's possible there could be an injunction entered here," he said as lawyers wrapped up nearly six hours of testimony. "I need some input from people who have been thinking about this longer than I have."
Any injunction should address why the law hasn't been properly implemented, he added.
Judge Simpson's directive to both parties followed a day that focused largely on yet another set of changes announced by state officials to their procedures for issuing photo identification cards to voters.
Anyone seeking an ID card for solely voting purposes now can request a Department of State ID card without first proving that they cannot obtain a traditional Department of Transportation ID card.
Those PennDOT cards are known as "secure" IDs -- they can be used for purposes beyond voting, such as boarding an airplane, but also require showing a birth certificate and other documents.
An alternative card -- the Department of State ID -- was unveiled just before Judge Simpson heard the first round of arguments against the law in July. That card still required two proofs of residency, a provision that also was dropped in the new guidelines finalized Monday night.
A voter now only needs to give their name, date of birth, Social Security number and address. If their registration cannot be confirmed on the spot, a card will be created and mailed to them once their voter status is verified.
State officials said the changes were a direct response to the Supreme Court's skepticism of the ID card process.
When attorneys for the state American Civil Liberties Union and other challengers of the law pressed repeatedly as to why the looser guidelines weren't adopted sooner, how it can be sure voters are aware of the requirements, and what else they could be doing to aid voters, agency officials vigorously defended the steps they've taken.
PennDOT's deputy secretary for safety administration, Kurt Myers, testified that new forms and training materials regarding Monday's changes already were distributed to the state's 71 licensing centers.
He noted the letters that the department sent to voters who had been denied an ID alerting them to an alternative, as well as efforts undertaken to pre-screen forms submitted by nursing home residents and holding extra office hours for groups that sometimes didn't show up.
As Mr. Myers concluded his testimony, PennDOT officials announced that 48 licensing centers across the state typically closed on Mondays will be operating the day before the general election. Those offices include five Allegheny County locations in Pittsburgh, Allison Park, Bridgeville, New Kensington and Penn Hills, as well as several others in neighboring counties.
Commonwealth attorneys said the looser ID card rules announced Monday already go far enough to comply with the top court's opinion.
Opponents of the law argued that the additional changes, made five weeks before the general election, don't make up for having strict requirements in place during the months since the law's approval in March.
"We believe it's only proper to enjoin the law until after a full trial is held on the merits," said David Gersch, one of the plantiffs' lawyers.
Judge Simpson has until Tuesday to file his supplemental opinion on the aspects pinpointed by the higher court.
First Published September 26, 2012 12:00 am