Opponents of Pennsylvania’s voter identification law are asking a judge to overturn the Republican-backed legislation, which requires voters to show photo ID to cast a ballot.
Judge Bernard McGinley of Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, the state capital, will hear opening statements today from attorneys for organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union on whether the law is unconstitutional and disenfranchises groups of voters including the poor and elderly. State officials were temporarily barred from enforcing the law in the November and May elections.
“The photo ID law imposes a new requirement that hundreds of thousands cannot meet at all, or can meet only with severe burden,” Michael Rubin, an attorney for the plaintiffs with the firm Arnold & Porter LLP, said today in a statement before the trial. “This law violates the right to vote and cannot stand.”
As many as 410,000 people, or 5 percent of Pennsylvania’s eligible electorate, might be barred from voting under the statute, according to the ACLU.
Backed by Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, the law enacted in March 2012 followed similar measures passed in Republican-controlled states, leading opponents to claim the intent is to suppress the votes of lower-income people and the elderly, who may be more inclined to vote for Democrats. Supporters say the laws are needed to prevent voter fraud.
Pennsylvania’s law requires a driver’s license, state-issued ID or acceptable alternative such as a military ID to cast a ballot. The law requires that acceptable IDs must have an expiration date, which eliminates common forms of photo identification such as veterans’ IDs, commonwealth employee IDs and student IDs, the ACLU said.
In August, the Pennsylvania Department of State began offering a new card for voting as a last resort for those unable to obtain a state-issued ID. The state had issued only 16,754 of those free IDs as of June 7, the ACLU said last month in court papers.
Since the November election, the state has “effectively stopped all proactive efforts to get IDs to voters and the issuance of voter IDs has dropped to about 100 per month,” lawyers for the ACLU said in court papers. “There is no basis to believe that the gap will ever be closed.”
The state cited no comparable numbers in its own papers filed last month in the case.
The ACLU numbers are misleading because they include only state identification issued by the Transportation or State department, said Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a spokesman for the Office of General Counsel, which represents state agencies and officials.
“The numbers are a smokescreen because they don’t factor in other IDs a voter could have,” Hagen-Frederiksen said in a July 12 phone interview. “I understand why the plaintiffs have put those specific numbers in there, but they don’t tell the whole story and they don’t address the key fact, which is the availability of IDs. The real issue here is liberal access to IDs.”
Lawyers for the state maintain that the law treats all voters alike.
“Disenfranchisement -- the wrong that is sought to be avoided -- results from systemic and insurmountable impediments to exercising the right to vote,” lawyers for the state said in court papers. “Here, Act 18 and the system it creates is intended to assure that every person who wishes to vote is able to do so -- while at the same time giving voters confidence that only qualified electors will vote and each voter will have his or her vote counted once.”
The state said last year that there were no incidents or investigations of in-person voter fraud. The ACLU said last week that no fraud was reported in either the November or May elections.
Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that passed laws requiring voters to show state-issued IDs before casting valid ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Eighteen states passed laws requiring or requesting voters to present some kind of photo ID. Only two adopted voter-ID laws before 2008.
The U.S. Supreme Court last month struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that said states with a history of discrimination must obtain federal court approval before making any election changes, such as requiring voters to show photo ID. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced later that the state would immediately implement a 2011 voter ID law.
The ACLU in October won a ruling temporarily blocking the Pennsylvania law after the state Supreme Court ordered an appeals-court judge to assess whether all eligible voters would be able to obtain acceptable IDs if the law were upheld.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson tailored his October ruling to address conduct which directly results in disenfranchisement. He refused to ban the photo-ID demand.
Lawyers for the ACLU have asked McGinley to extend the temporary injunction while the case is pending and bar officials from asking for a photo ID even if one isn’t yet required to vote.
The trial is expected to last two weeks with a ruling on the temporary injunction in August, said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, a plaintiff in the case.
A ruling on a permanent injunction would come later this year. An appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely, Clarke said.
The case is Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 330-md-2012, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg).
To contact the reporter on this story: Sophia Pearson in Philadelphia at email@example.com; Ron Musselman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, at firstname.lastname@example.org.