Pa. Appellate judge upholds voter ID law
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HARRISBURG -- After a state appellate judge decided Wednesday against preventing Pennsylvania's new voter identification law from going into effect in November, opponents of that statute vowed to take their legal battle to the state Supreme Court.
But as those challenges continue in the courtroom, some Democrats and advocates for those most likely to lack the photo ID cards now required at state polling sites also articulated a parallel focus: redoubling their efforts to ensure that all voters have proper identification in case the law is not overturned.
The 70-page opinion issued by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson exactly five months after the law was signed generally found the photo-ID requirement to be reasonable and non-discriminatory.
The Republican-backed measure requires voters to show photo identification that includes an expiration date and that was issued by the state or federal government, a municipal employer, a Pennsylvania university or a nursing home.
Voters who arrive at the polls without an acceptable ID can cast provisional ballots that will count if those voters verify their identity within six days. Previously, identification was required the first time a voter visited a polling site, but could include a utility bill or other non-photo option.
Groups opposing the law, including the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, argued during a recent seven-day hearing that too many voters -- primarily minority, poor or elderly residents -- lack acceptable ID cards and would not be able to acquire them.
Plaintiffs presented witnesses at trial who said they don't have the necessary documents to apply for an ID card. Their lawyers pointed to shifting estimates from the Department of State on how many voters do not have a state-issued ID card.
Judge Simpson was not convinced, writing in the opinion that those challenging the law did not establish "that disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable."
The judge wrote that he believed that several of the individuals presented as examples of those unable to travel to obtain a photo ID would qualify for absentee voting. Those voting absentee must write their state ID card number or last four digits of their Social Security card on their ballot, or include a copy of another acceptable ID card.
Those who go to the polls without an ID card could vote using a provisional ballot, he wrote, adding that any issues could be resolved afterward on a case-by-case basis.
"I am not convinced any of the individual petitioners or other witnesses will not have their votes counted in the general election," the judge wrote, later describing the statute as "merely an election regulation to verify a voter's identity."
Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who signed the law in March, issued a statement saying that the decision will allow the state to continue concentrating on educating voters.
Asked during a conference call about the appeal that the ACLU and other groups planned to file as soon as today, Mr. Corbett declined to predict whether the law will clear its final hurdle.
"I never presume what the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is going to do," he told reporters. "You can never predict what they're going to do. We believe that the law is constitutional."
Judge Simpson noted the likelihood of that appeal in his decision, stating that stopping the law now -- and in turn the educational efforts under way -- while an appeal is under review would cause "great injury" should the law again be upheld.
Attorneys challenging the law questioned Judge Simpson's determination to give deference to the state officials.
Witold Walczak of the ACLU said a law should be judged against a higher standard if it could deprive someone of his or her right to vote, an argument likely to factor into his group's plan to appeal. He also expressed disappointment that the judge listed post-election legal challenges as a remedy for those who fail to acquire proper ID.
"We're not sure what these folks are supposed to do, when there's no clear remedy except going to court after," Mr. Walczak said.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, a top Republican who helped to shepherd the measure's approval, pointed to the judge's remark that no qualified voter would be prevented from casting a ballot by the new law. "The opinion was quite explicit about that," he said.
Allegheny County and state Democratic officials, who have argued that the law has a political intent and potential consequences based on the demographics of those lacking ID cards, had harsh words for Wednesday's decision.
"There's no question that this voter ID law was designed, passed and will be implemented to disenfranchise voters," said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills. "[The decision against an injunction] is a very tragic error."
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said Judge Simpson's decision would have a negative impact on local elections, citing a state estimate that 100,000 Allegheny County voter might not have proper ID.
However, state Democratic Party chairman Jim Burn was more tempered in his response, noting the party's efforts to ensure that voters are familiar with the new requirement.
"For months, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party has implemented programs designed to ensure Pennsylvanians have the proper identification and we will continue our work as the legal process unfolds" Mr. Burn said in a statement.
A state spokeswoman for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign also focused on registration and education efforts.
Since the law took effect, the Department of State has unveiled new paths for people to obtain an ID that meets the law's requirements, including creating a yet-to-be-issued card specifically for voting purposes. Agency officials also announced that drivers whose licenses expired in 1990 or later can get a new ID without showing a birth certificate.
But the ACLU, along with the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, and the Washington, D.C., law firm of Arnold & Porter, said the requirements still were too heavy a burden for those lacking adequate ID cards. They filed suit in May.
A separate legal challenge, filed by Democrats on the Allegheny County Board of Elections, still is pending in Commonwealth Court.
First Published August 16, 2012 12:00 am