2012-08-17 08:55:00

PA Judge Lets Voter Photo-ID Law Stand

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A Pennsylvania judge ruled that state’s the photo-voter ID law, enacted in March, does not violate the Keystone State’s constitution and can be lawfully implemented before November’s presidential election.

The decision by Judge Robert Simpson denied the request for a temporary injunction filed by individual plaintiffs, who testified during a six-day hearing about the difficulties they would likely encounter in obtaining a voter photo-ID.

Critics of such laws note that almost all of the 17 states having passed voter photo-ID laws (and another three requiring non-photo identification) are led by GOP lawmakers. Further, critics argue that the stated rationale for the law, voter impersonation fraud, is so uncommon at the polls—far less than absentee voting problems—that far more legitimate voters, such as elders who don’t have photo IDs, will be disenfranchised than fraud cases are uncovered.

Several organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, National Association for Advancement of Colored People and  Advancement Project, a justice advocacy group, supported the plaintiffs.

Appeal to State Supreme Court

Plaintiffs filed an appeal Thursday to bring the case before Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which will likely issue an expedited ruling, according to Kathy Culliton-Gonzalez, director of Advancement Project’s Voter Protection Program.

Culliton-Gonzalez said the high court’s judges are aware that such a ruling made too close to an election can generate considerable confusion among voters. She expects the State Supreme Court to act soon to avoid an election-day situation in which voters and poll officials are confused about voter’s rights and alternatives should they be denied access to a voting booth for lack of a voter photo-ID.

An expedited ruling upholding Simpson’s decision might limit confusion, but it certainly would not end it. Culliton-Gonzalez said that Simpson’s failure to appreciate the hurdles of provisional voting, for example, which is an option when one is denied a regular ballot, is just part of her disappointment with his ruling.

“A voter will have six days after voting with a provisional ballot to come in and present a photo-ID that he or she didn’t have or was unable to obtain in the first place,” she said.

Culliton-Gonzalez added that the judge should have held to the Pennsylvania constitution’s higher standard of voter protection in evaluating the effect of voter photo-ID requirements. Simpson agreed with proponents of the Pennsylvania voter-ID statute that it is similar to Indiana’s law, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Indiana’s legislation is often cited as a legal model by voter photo-ID proponents, including Pennsylvania State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the current law’s chief sponsor. Metcalfe said in a recent interview that he does not think any eligible voters in his state would be adversely affected by a voter photo-ID law.

Culliton-Gonzalez, though, insisted that “over a million people could be disenfranchised.” She took aim at the judge’s decision because his ruling partially hinged on the legal distinction between a “facial” challenge to the law and an “applied” one.

In essence, Simpson wrote that the plaintiff's testimony on the Pennsylvania law’s negative effects was hypothetical and therefore could not be presented as a reason to forestall the law until harm actually occurs but that the plaintiffs were challenging the law’s constitutionality on its face. Culliton-Gonzalez argued that the plaintiffs had already shown during the injunction hearing how they were being negatively affected.

Critics Question Judge’s Logic

Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the Simpson’s decision “fails to connect legal principles with practical realities and consequently the court failed to protect the rights of Pennsylvania’s voters.”

In addition to criticizing the legal merits of the ruling, Gaskins echoed other critics in questioning Simpson’s logic about the state’s capacity to meet the large volume of requests they anticipate for photo IDs. “Equally puzzling is Simpson’s faith in the commonwealth [of Pennsylvania’s] ability to issue a sufficient number of photo ID’s in time for the November election,” Gaskins said in a statement.

“The commonwealth’s estimates of the number of registered voters who lack photo ID [have] varied wildly -- from 82,000 to 750,000. Yet Commonwealth Secretary Carol Aichele testified that only enough money has been allocated to provide ID’s for 75,000 voters -- insufficient to cover even the commonwealth’s lowest number,” Gaskins said.

The state’s inability to process the demand for IDs has been a concern of State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat and fierce critic of the law that was passed without a single Democratic vote by a Republican-controlled legislature. “The court’s refusal to grant the injunction and allow the law to proceed may result in hundreds of thousands of voters being disenfranchised,” said Hughes in a statement issued by his office. “This is deeply troubling, and I am very disappointed with this ruling.”

Further, Hughes has argued that the new law was designed specifically to suppress voter turnout in November among constituencies in his state that traditionally vote Democratic, including African American and Latino communities. Fewer people in those groups tend to posses photo-IDs than their European-American peers.

Admission Law Will Aid Romney

Adding to the controversy over the law was a provocative statement by the state’s Republican House Majority Leader Michael Turzai. He gave credence to the charge that the law was driven by partisan politics, rather than a compelling need to reform the voting process, by stating that voter ID “is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

In his ruling, Simpson said, “I also considered allegations of partisan motivation.” While conceding that he found Turzai’s comments “disturbing,” Simpson said he “declined to infer that other members of the General Assembly shared the boastful views of Representative Turzai without proof that other members were present at the time the statement was made. Also, the statements were made away for the chamber floor.”

Yet, even if the statement had been made on the legislature’s floor with “proof” presented, it is unlikely that Simpson would have overturned the law. He cited a Supreme Court ruling that “if a no- discriminatory law is supported by valid neutral justifications, those justifications should not be disregarded simply because partisan motivations may have provided one motivation for the votes of individual legislators.”

It is because Simpson found the law non-discriminatory and its justifications valid and neutral that his critics are disappointed. “It is a sad day for democracy in America,” said Culliton-Gonzalez.

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