2012-10-02 09:29:00

HUGE Voting Rights Win: Pennsylvania's New Voter ID Law Suspended for Presidential Election

The toughest provisions of Pennsylvania’s tough new voter ID law—requiring voters to present new state-issued photo IDs this fall—has been suspended for 2012’s presidential election, under an order issued by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson on Tuesday.

The ruling is a major victory for Keystone State voting rights advocates, who, led by the state’s ACLU chapter, showed the court that the state’s motor vehicle agency could not meet the pubic demand for new IDs before the presidential election without disenfranchising voters.

“I question whether sufficient time now remains to attain the goal of liberal access,” Simpson wrote, referring to the agency’s readiness on providing the newly required photo IDs to registered voters, adding that “candid admissions by government officials” and “anecdotal evidence offered by Petitioners”  -- activists who accompanied people trying to get the new IDs but couldn’t -- required him to suspend the law for the November election.

However, the ruling could still lead to confusion at the polls on Election Day, because it does not stop poll workers from asking voters for the new IDs. It means that registered voters who lack the new state-issued photo IDs—such as city dwellers without driver’s licenses, students and elderly people—can present other forms of ID to get a ballot.

Those forms of ID, which were in Pennsylvania law before the Republican-controlled Legislature toughened voter ID standards in Act 18, include: other state and federal government IDs, student ID, employee ID, gun permits, utility bills, bank statements or paychecks.

Still, the ruling is a major victory for voting rights advocates, who feared that up to 9 percent of the state’s more than 8 million registered voters might not have the new state photo IDs, or could not present documentation—such as birth certificates—to get one before November. Those estimates came from state election officials, which is a different state agency than motor vehicles and was not responsible for issuing the new voter ID cards.

The ruling is a major legal turnaround. Just weeks ago, Simpson issued an order upholding the new voter ID law. In that decision, he rejected the estimates of how many voters could be disenfranchised and said legislators were constitutionally entitled to pass whatever laws they wanted. Simpson’s ruling was speedily appealed to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which then ordered Simpson to rehear the case and told him to pay closer attention to the impact of Act 18 on disenfranchising voters.

Simpson’s decision issued Tuesday does not throw out the law. It suspends those sections that might impede voting this fall based on not having the newly required state photo IDs. He said Act 18’s voter ID provisions would be revisited after the election in a full trial.

“I will begin planning for trial on a permanent injunction,” Simpson concluded, saying he was issuing a “preliminary injunction for purposes of the upcoming election.”

Simpson’s discussion of the evidence was not far from what he found when he upheld the law weeks ago. He said that he did not believe testimony from groups like the ACLU that up to 9 percent of the state’s electorate—or 750,000 voters—could be stopped from voting in November. But he noted that the state’s Supreme Court ordered him to pay attention to what steps in the voting process could stop otherwise eligible voters from casting a ballot in November. With that standard before him, he issued a temporary restraining order that was not exactly black or white.

In the first instance, poll workers can ask for the new IDs, but those who cannot present it will still be allowed to vote—once they show other forms of ID that were allowed under the state’s previous voter ID law. “I will not restrain election officials from asking for photo ID at the polls; rather, I will enjoin enforcement of those parts of Act 18 which directly result in disenfranchisement,” Simpson wrote.

Simpson also said the lack of the new state photo IDs could not be used to disqualify provisional ballots cast in November. These are ballots that are given to people who do not have any ID with them when they show up at the polls. They are required to return to local election offices shortly thereafter with proof of their identity, in order for their vote to count. “I will enjoin enforcement of those provisions of Act 18 which amend the provisional ballot procedures of the Election Code,” he wrote.

Simpson’s ruling is not the end of the legal battle over the state’s new voter ID law. There would be a follow-up trial after the November election, he said, where legal observers already predict that the strict new voter ID law will be upheld because the state will have more time to implement it.

But there is no getting around that Simpson’s ruling on Tuesday is a major voting rights victory in a presidential election season. Presidential contests historically have the highest turnout of any election. Many registered voters but who don’t vote in other elections make last-minute decisions to vote. Civil rights groups were afraid that these voters would not be aware of newly restrictive voter ID standards—or other changes in procedures, including new polling place locations.

Simpson’s ruling clears away at least one major voting rights barrier for the November election in a state that been considered among the bottom tier of 2012’s presidential swing states.      

Tue, 10/02/2012 - 09:29

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