Government Technology

Pennsylvania Judge Refuses to Halt Voter ID Law


Fraud Protection or Voter Suppression?

August 16, 2012 By Jim Malewitz

A Pennsylvania judge has refused to block the state’s furiously debated voter identification law, smoothing the way for its use during the November election.

That ruling Wednesday (August 15) came despite objections from critics, who say the GOP-backed requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls could unevenly burden thousands of poor, minority and elderly would-be voters — a slice of the population less likely to own a valid ID and more likely to vote Democratic.

In a 70-page decision, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said he would not issue an injunction to block implementation of the law ahead of the elections, amid challenges to its constitutionality. The law, called Act 18, was passed by the Legislature in March and signed by Governor Tom Corbett.

“Act 18 applies to all qualified electors: to vote in person, everyone must present a photo ID that can be obtained for free,” Simpson wrote. “The statute gives poll workers another tool to verify that the person is who they claim to be.”

Simpson’s decision will be swiftly appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, whose six active judges are evenly split along ideological lines. Four votes would be needed to overturn the law — an outcome some experts say is unlikely.

“This decision is almost certain to stand,” Richard Hasen, a professor of law at the University of California at Irvine, wrote on his election law blog. “The state Justices are unlikely to break on party lines in this case.”

Republican-backed voter ID laws have become a hot button issue in many states. Thirty-seven legislatures have recently considered or enacted tougher voter ID laws, with proponents arguing they will crack down on in-person voter fraud. Proof of such fraud, however, is hard to come by.

A News21 investigation published this week, for instance, found the practice to be “virtually non-existent” across the country. The national team of journalist's analysis of 2,068 election fraud cases since 2000 found just 10 cases of alleged voter impersonation, an average of one for every 15 million voters.

In Pennsylvania, the state has acknowledged there have been no documented cases of voter fraud, which has prompted critics of the law, including Democrats and civil rights groups, to accuse its backers of voter suppression.

Adding fuel to those allegations was a statement made in June by Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania’s Republican House Majority Leader. In a speech, he asserted the voter ID law “is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

In his ruling, Judge Simpson called the statement “disturbing,” but an opinion unlikely representative of most state assembly members.

Simpson said that critics of the law “did an excellent job 'putting a face' to those burdened by the photo ID requirement.”

“At the end of the day, however, I do not have the luxury of deciding this issue based on my sympathy for the witnesses or the esteemed council,” he wrote.

Those who testified included 93-year old Bea Booker, who lives in a senior center and was too frail to testify in person, and Tyler Florio, a 21-year-old high school student diagnosed with autism, chronic fatigue syndrome and mitochondrial dysfunction.

Challengers of the law said the testimonies exemplified how just a few of many Pennsylvanians would struggle to gather the documents required — including a birth certificate — to obtain a valid photo ID, and they would be unable to endure the extra trip to a state licensing center. Despite those difficulties, the plaintiffs argued, those people may not qualify to cast an absentee ballot in lieu of voting in person.

Simpson found it “highly unlikely” the witnesses wouldn’t be able to cast absentee ballots. But if that were the case, he said, they could cast provisional ballots without proper ID and later seek to get the ballots certified — a process that includes providing proof of identification to the county elections board no more than six days after the election.

“Based on the availability of absentee voting, provisional ballots, and opportunities for judicial relief for those with special hardships,” Simpson wrote, “I am not convinced that any of the individual Petitioners or other witnesses will not have their votes counted in the general election.”

Simpson, who was not ruling on the full merits of the law and only on whether to grant an injunction, wrote that halting the law would overly burden the state, rendering moot any of its efforts to educate the public about the new requirements.

Such efforts include mailing informational packets to poll workers, hosting an August conference for all elections judges and installing software for the new IDs. Simpson also cited the state’s plans after Labor Day to launch an extensive outreach campaign aimed at every registered voter, which would include mailings, online advertisements and phone calls.

Article reprinted courtesy of Stateline, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.


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