Pennsylvania balks on federal voter ID request
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HARRISBURG -- The Corbett administration has responded to a federal review of the new voter identification requirement, sending a letter suggesting that the U.S. Department of Justice overstepped its authority to request information because of political opposition to the law.
When the Justice Department announced last month that it is examining if the voter ID law discriminates against minorities, it asked the state to provide extensive documentation, including databases of voters and driver's licenses. In a letter Friday to the top Justice Department civil rights lawyer, general counsel James Schultz defended the state law and charged that the department had requested documents to which it is not legally entitled. Among the requested documents that he said "fall well outside the scope" of a law cited by the Justice Department are records supporting a claim by the governor's office that 99 percent of eligible voters have acceptable identification.
"In light of the absence of authority for your request for information, I question whether your inquiry is truly motivated by a desire to assess compliance with federal voting rights laws, or rather is fueled by political motivation," he wrote.
Mr. Schultz wrote that the state would provide the federal agency with the documents it shared with attorneys who challenged the law in state court, provided that the department signs the same confidentiality agreement. He said the state provided "tens of thousands of non-privileged documents," including voter identification information, but he did not describe which of the requested files would be included.
Marian Schneider, an attorney for the challengers in the state case, said the Justice Department asked for more information than the petitioners received in the litigation. The day after the state received the request, Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, the state's top election official, told reporters the state would comply with the letter and provide the information requested. A Department of State spokesman said the agency had no comment beyond the letter.
The Justice Department is reviewing the Pennsylvania law for compliance with the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law that strengthened the federal government's ability to enforce the 15th Amendment guarantee that the right to vote cannot be denied on account of race. In his letter, Mr. Schultz wrote that any question about compliance with voting rights laws was answered last week with the decision of a Commonwealth Court judge that the voter ID law does not violate the Pennsylvania Constitution. He also argued that the 2008 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of an Indiana voter ID law -- despite the inconvenience of a trip to a driver's licensing center -- makes the Pennsylvania statute a "matter of settled law."
Given the state court decision, Mr. Schultz wrote, further efforts to review the voter ID law for compliance with federal voting rights laws "will only serve to validate my suspicions as to the true motivation for your inquiry."
He pointed to a forthcoming form of identification authorized by the Department of State as one of the "additional safeguards" the state has taken to "ensure that no eligible voter will be denied a reasonable opportunity to obtain and submit the identification necessary to cast a valid vote."
A Justice Department spokesman said the agency would review the letter and then respond.
The letter is not the first time the administration has taken issue with the Justice Department request. Days after the request was made, Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican and a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said the Justice Department was proceeding "through PR" with the letter.
"It made it to you in the media before it made it to us," he said in Pittsburgh. "I have a problem with that."
Michael Pitts, a former Civil Rights Division attorney who is now a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, said the state is "comparing apples and oranges" when it argues that the Commonwealth Court case and the Indiana case before the U.S. Supreme Court resolve whether the Pennsylvania voter ID law complies with federal voting rights laws. But even though the letter questions the Justice Department's authority to compel the documents, he said it allows room for the state to provide much of the requested information.
First Published August 21, 2012 12:00 am