Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge Robert Simpson yesterday did his part to save the Republican Party. Simpson, a Republican himself, essentially postponed Pennsylvania's voter ID law until after the 2012 election on the grounds that the state had made scant progress supplying IDs to prospective voters and would likely disenfranchise large numbers if the law wasn't derailed.
According to recent polls, President Barack Obama is leading Republican Mitt Romney in Pennsylvania by 7 to 12 points. Obama appears likely to win the state with or without a voter ID law tamping down the youth and minority vote.
That doesn't mean the state's election would be without drama. Pennsylvania is on record with an estimate that 758,000 registered voters lack the proper ID. Over the course of 2012, a few more than 10,000 of those voters obtained one. So if the courts had permitted the law to go forward, perhaps three quarters of a million registered Pennsylvania voters would have been unable to vote this November.
The state is also on record about the motivation for the law. Before the voter ID trial began, the state stipulated that there have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; that authorities are unaware of such fraud having been committed elsewhere; and that the state had no evidence that in-person voter fraud was likely to occur in the future.
In other words, Republican legislators went through the sturm and drang of adopting a highly-contentious, racially-charged change in voting rights . . . just because.
Of course, many Pennsylvanians know that House Republican leader Mike Turzai was videotaped telling fellow Republicans that passage of the voter ID law would "allow Governor Romney to win" the state.
So imagine the scene this Election Day had Judge Simpson not put the law on hold. In Philadelphia black and Hispanic voters, some of them elderly with long and proud voting histories, would be turned away from polls because they lack a state-sanctioned ID as required by a partisan vote by Republicans in the legislature.
Disenfranchising voters in a democracy counts as news. The chance that at least one network news crew would have compelling footage and interviews with disenfranchised voters is approximately 101 percent. The chance that this would help Republicans work their way out of the white corner in which they've painted themselves is about the same.
Long before Obama, Democrats were claiming 90 percent or more of black votes. Obama won Asians and Hispanics 2-1 over John McCain. According to recent polls of Hispanics -- the nation's largest minority group, with perhaps 4 million more eligible voters this election than last, and still more on the way for 2016 -- Obama is poised to surpass that margin in November.
It took a dose of truly bug-eyed insanity for Republicans, whose brand is not in great shape to begin with, to launch a voting-rights war in which minority voters would be the obvious casualties. As former Florida governor Jeb Bush and other voices of reason have pointed out, there is not a great future in the U.S. for an all-white political party. Yet it's hard to imagine a better way to galvanize the nation's emerging multiracial majority into long-term opposition than to set up roadblocks to their right to vote. (Well, it could be worse. You could be caught on tape explaining that the purpose of the restrictions is to help Republicans win.)
The Pennsylvania ruling is somewhat muddled, allowing poll workers to ask for photo ID this year while not requiring it. And the law seems likely to rear its head again in 2014. For now, however, Pennsylvania's postponement, along with similar defeats for voting restrictions in other states, might be enough to keep Republicans from lighting the exploding cigar in their vest pocket.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.