Pennsylvania Voter ID Decision: Judge Refuses To Grant Injunction To Halt Law

Reply Wed 15 Aug, 2012 12:08 pm
Pennsylvania Voter ID Decision: Judge Refuses To Grant Injunction To Halt Law

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A tough new voter identification law championed by Republicans can take effect in Pennsylvania for November's presidential election, a judge ruled Wednesday, despite a torrent of criticism that it will suppress votes among President Barack Obama's supporters and make it harder for the elderly, disabled, poor and young adults to vote.

Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said he would not grant an injunction that would have halted the law, which requires each voter to show a valid photo ID. Opponents are expected to file an appeal within a day or two to the state Supreme Court as the Nov. 6 election looms.

"We're not done, it's not over," said Witold J. Walczak, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who helped argue the case for the plaintiffs. "It's why they make appeals courts."

The Republican-penned law – which passed over the objections of Democrats – has ignited a furious debate over voting rights as Pennsylvania is poised to play a key role in deciding the presidential contest. Plaintiffs, including a 93-year-old woman who recalled marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960, had asked Simpson to block the law from taking effect in this year's election as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.

Republicans defend the law as necessary to protect the integrity of the election. But Democrats say the law will make it harder for people who lack ID for valid reasons to vote.

Opponents portray the law as a partisan scheme to help the Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, beat Obama. Their passionate objections were inflamed in June when the state's Republican House leader boasted to a Republican gathering that the new photo ID requirement "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state" in November.

Simpson, a Republican, didn't rule on the full merits of the case, only whether to grant a preliminary injunction stopping it from taking effect.

In his 70-page opinion, Simpson said the plaintiffs "did an excellent job of `putting a face' to those burdened by the voter ID requirement," but he said he didn't have the luxury of deciding the case based on sympathy. Rather, he said he believed that state officials and agencies were actively resolving problems with the law and that they would carry it out in a "nonpartisan, even-handed manner."

The law, he said, is neutral, nondiscriminatory and applies uniformly to all voters. Speculation about the potential problems in issuing valid photo IDs or confusion on Election Day did not warrant "invalidation of all lawful applications" of it, he wrote.

Plus, more harm would result from halting the law, he said.

"This is because the process of implementation in general, and of public outreach and education in particular, is much harder to start, or restart, than it is to stop," Simpson wrote.

At the state Supreme Court, votes by four justices would be needed to overturn Simpson's ruling. The high court is currently split between three Republicans and three Democrats following the recent suspension of Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican who is fighting criminal corruption charges.

The original Republican rationale for the law – to prevent election fraud – played little role in the court case. Government lawyers acknowledged that they are "not aware of any incidents of in person voter fraud." Instead, they insisted that lawmakers properly exercised their latitude to make election-related laws.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed the law in March after every single Democratic lawmaker voted against it.

At issue is the requirement that all Pennsylvania voters produce a valid photo ID before their ballot can be counted, a substantial change from the law it was designed to replace. That law required identification only for people voting in a polling place for the first time and it allowed nonphoto documents such as a utility bill or bank statement.

Some of the people who sued say they will be unable to vote because they lack the necessary documents, including a birth certificate, to get a state photo ID, the most widely available of the IDs that are valid under the new law.

The lawyers who provided free legal representation to the plaintiffs also warned that it will be difficult for many others to get a valid ID, and they presented testimony about workers at Department of Transportation license centers who appeared uninformed about the requirement to issue free nondriver photo IDs.

In addition, some voters won't know about the law until they get to the polls, and long waits will result while untrained election workers struggle to carry out a complicated and unnecessary law amid the traditionally larger turnout in presidential elections, they argued.

Lawyers from the attorney general's office, which defended the law, pointed out that the state is planning to begin issuing a special photo ID card for registered voters who are unable to get a PennDOT-issued ID and lack other acceptable photo IDs, such as passports or active-duty military IDs.

In addition, they say the state is rolling out a public relations campaign to make people aware of the law.

The Department of State, which oversees elections in Pennsylvania, has not produced any kind of study or survey that estimates the number of people without a valid photo ID that is required by the law.

Meanwhile, Obama's Department of Justice is looking at whether the new law complies with federal laws and has asked the state's top election official and a chief supporter of the law for a long list of information about it.
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Reply Wed 15 Aug, 2012 12:21 pm
Pa. voter ID law gets approval of state judge
By Robert Barnes
August 15, 11:20

A Pennsylvania judge ruled Wednesday that a new Republican-supported state voter ID law could be implemented for Election Day, despite objections that it was a partisan attempt to hurt President Obama and could cost usands of voters the right to cast ballots.

Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson said the individuals and civil rights groups challenging the law had not met the heavy burden of proving that it so clearly violated the state constitution that it should not be implemented. He said there was still time for those without proper ID to acquire it.

“Petitioners did not establish . . . that disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable,” Simpson wrote, adding, “I was convinced that Act 18 will be implemented by Commonwealth agencies in a nonpartisan, evenhanded manner.”

The detailed, 70-page opinion by Simpson, a veteran of the bench who is a Republican, makes it much more likely that Pennsylvania voters will now be required to show specific forms of photo ID. It is one of many new restrictive voting laws across the country — in almost all cases, sponsored by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.

The decision will quickly be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That court is currently operating with only six members, because one of its justices is suspended. A tie vote would uphold Simpson’s ruling.

Although their decisions do not always follow partisan lines, the six elected justices are equally divided between Democrats and Republicans.

The battle in Harrisburg is just one of dozens being waged in courtrooms in Washington and across the country involving new voting laws. The Justice Department has objected to laws in several states — Texas, South Carolina and Florida, among them — covered by a federal requirement that changes in their voting laws require advance approval from federal authorities or the courts.

Pennsylvania acknowledged that it would not attempt to prove that voter impersonation fraud—the kind that would be stopped by photo ID laws—had occurred in the commonwealth, or that it was likely to occur in the coming election without the law.

But it said requiring ID was a rational decision by the legislature to protect the voting process and had such a right under the state constitution.

The opponents said that even in a modern world where photo ID is requested on a daily basis for routine government exchanges, there were hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who had voted all their lives but lacked the specific kind of photo ID or documents required to get an ID.

Simpson was skeptical of the challengers’ estimates. He said he believed that more than 1 percent of the commonwealth’s more than 8 million voters lacked the required ID, but less than the 9 percent figure that opponents of the law submitted.

He credited pledges by the secretary of state to streamline the process for requesting ID. With the availability of absentee voting and accepting votes on a provisional basis, Simpson said he was not convinced that any of the petitioners “will not have their votes counted in the general election.”

While the challenge was brought under the state constitution, Simpson’s opinion was heavily influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 decision that seemed to give states the green light to require voters to present photo IDs. In the court’s lead opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens, now retired, said that such a law in Indiana was a reasonable reaction to the threat of voter fraud, “amply justified by the valid interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process.”

Simpson said he considered complaints that the law was motivated by partisan interests, noting what he called the “disturbing, tendentious statements” by state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R).

Simpson said there was no proof that other lawmakers shared Turzai’s “boastful” view. Even if there were partisan motivations, Simpson said, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Indiana case said that a nondiscriminatory law with should not be invalidated simply because some individual legislators had partisan motivations.urzai listed the law as an accomplishment at a meeting of GOP activists, saying “Voter ID — which is going to allow governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”

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