Pennsylvania loosened its requirements for an alternative voter-identification card after the state Supreme Court questioned the ability of all residents to comply with a statute requiring photo ID to cast a ballot in the general election in November.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, ruling 4-2 on Sept. 18, ordered Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson to consider whether all eligible voters will be able to obtain acceptable ID if the law is upheld. Simpson ruled Aug. 15 that the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued challenging the law, hadn’t proved the law would disenfranchise voters. The state high court asked Simpson to submit a supplemental opinion on the availability of alternate IDs by Oct. 2.
“This is an evolutionary process,” Kurt Myers, deputy secretary for safety administration for Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation, testified yesterday at a hearing in Harrisburg. “We’ve learned through the process and learned ways to make it easier for people to get.”
The new requirements for a voting-only ID card from the Department of State went into effect yesterday at 71 PennDOT centers statewide, Myers said.
The case is among multiple court battles over voting rules in states including Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, where Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns see the possibility of victory. A state analysis found that the photo requirement might exclude as much as 9 percent of Pennsylvania’s electorate from voting in the presidential election.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, carried Pennsylvania, which has 20 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency, by 620,478 votes in 2008, fewer than the number of voters that might be kept from the polls in November, the ACLU and advocacy groups said.
Pennsylvania’s law, enacted in March, requires voters to present a state-issued ID or an acceptable alternative such as a military ID or federal employee identification, to cast a ballot.
Opponents of the law said likely Democratic voters, such as the elderly and the poor, are those least likely to have a valid ID by Election Day. The Department of State, which governs elections, on Aug. 27 began offering new ID cards as a last resort for those unable to obtain a valid substitute.
The state Supreme Court said in its Sept. 18 ruling that the state wasn’t living up to the law’s requirement that it provide “liberal access” to alternate forms of ID. To decide whether the measure can be implemented, more details are needed about the availability of the Department of State’s ID, the court held.
The new card procedures implemented by the Department of State include eliminating the “exhaustion” requirement, allowing voters to apply directly without first seeking a PennDOT ID, Myers said. The move cuts the process down to one trip for applicants.
Applicants no longer need to show two proofs of residency or state a gender, Myers said. PennDOT also streamlined the process for verifying birth records and extended hours at some centers to accommodate ID requests, he said.
The state has issued only 9 percent of the minimum number of IDs it estimates are needed, the ACLU said. About 1,300 DOS cards have been given out since Aug. 27, Myers testified. That’s in addition to about 9,500 cards issued by PennDOT since March, he said.
Myers and other state officials testified yesterday that the new requirements, an expanded help line for voters and a $5 million education campaign sufficiently addressed the Supreme Court’s concern about accessibility.
“The actual number of people who need to get the voter ID we believe is relatively small and they’re having success in getting them,” Alfred Putnam, an attorney for Governor Tom Corbett and Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele with Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP, said during the hearing.
An “intense media effort” is under way throughout the state with more than 8,000 ads slated to run by Nov. 6, Shannon Royer, deputy secretary for external affairs and elections at the Department of State, testified. The media campaign puts emphasis on educating minorities, the elderly and college students, Royer said.
“I know of no other state law that has received this much publicity,” Royer told Simpson.
The Supreme Court’s ruling “did not find that the requirements of the voter ID statute itself were unconstitutional,” Patrick Cawley, an attorney for the state, said Sept. 24 in a court filing.
The question raised by the Supreme Court focused on whether the alternative DOS identification card was “too hard to get’,” Putnam said.
“The Department of State has amended the rules as to what you need for the card,” Putnam said. “It was plainly made in response to the ruling of the Supreme Court.”
Simpson’s review comes as some Pennsylvania counties have announced plans to issue voter IDs through county-run nursing homes and colleges, exploiting a loophole in the measure.
The law allows Pennsylvania care facilities and accredited colleges and universities to issue identification cards to anyone as long as the cards show an expiration date. Officials in Allegheny County, which includes the city of Pittsburgh, and Montgomery County said last week they would begin issuing their own ID cards through county-run nursing homes and a community college starting Oct. 1.
Pennsylvania’s Department of State said it’s discouraging that process because of security risks.
“We believe it’s legal within the law but it brings up security issues with those facilities,” Matt Keeler, a department spokesman, said Sept. 24 in a phone interview. “This wasn’t part of the bill’s intent.”
Simpson is scheduled to hear additional arguments in the case on Sept. 27.
The case is Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 330 MD 2012, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg).
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