Pennsylvania Court Sets Aside Voter-ID Ruling for Review

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in setting aside a lower-court ruling upholding a voter identification law, asked the judge to revisit his decision and assess whether all citizens will be able to obtain allowable forms of ID.

Enacted in March, the law requires voters to present a state-issued ID, or an acceptable alternative such as a military ID, to cast a ballot. Opponents of the law said probable Democratic voters, such as the elderly and the poor, are those least likely to have a valid ID by election day. Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of State began offering new ID cards as a last resort for those unable to obtain a valid substitute.

Yesterday, a majority of the court said the state wasn’t living up to the law’s requirement that it provide “liberal access” to alternate forms of ID. The American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged the law, said only 9 percent of a state-estimated minimum number of alternate IDs have been issued. In order to decide whether the measure is workable, more details are needed about the availability of such ID, the court held.

“It’s certainly a victory in the sense that it vacates the adverse result below,” plaintiffs’ lawyer David Gersch, who argued the case before the supreme court, said during a teleconference after the ruling. How Commonwealth Court Judge Richard Simpson will go about supplementing his earlier ruling is unclear, Gersch said.

An analysis by state officials found the state’s photo ID requirement might exclude as many as 759,000 eligible voters, or 9 percent of Pennsylvania’s electorate, from voting in the Nov. 6 presidential election. In 2008, Democratic President Barack Obama carried the state, which controls 20 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House, by 620,478 votes.

Nine States

Pennsylvania is one of nine states that require voters to show a state-issued ID before casting a ballot. Republican officials in states across the country have been forced in recent months to defend laws seeking ID at the polls, limits on early voting and tighter restrictions on voter registration.

In Florida yesterday, Republican Governor Rick Scott lost a federal court bid to throw out a challenge to his initiative to purge non-citizens from voter rolls.

U.S. District Judge James Whittemore in Tampa ruled a lawsuit alleging Scott’s program requires pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act may proceed. Florida, as one of 16 jurisdictions with a history of voting rights violations, must obtain pre-approval of some laws by the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges.

Jacksonville Judge

Today in Jacksonville, another federal judge is set to hear arguments by opponents of Florida early voting restrictions who claim those measures discriminate on the basis of race.

In Ohio, Obama’s campaign asked a federal appeals court in Cincinnati Sept. 17 to uphold a lower court ruling that equalized Ohio’s number of early voting days leading up to the national election. The campaign seeks an order that all Ohio citizens may cast such ballots through Nov. 5.

Other challenges to laws Democrats said will disenfranchise citizens and favor Republican nominee Mitt Romney are pending in states including Wisconsin, Colorado and Iowa.

Harrisburg Ruling

In Pennsylvania yesterday, a four-justice majority of the supreme court asked the lower court to submit a supplemental opinion on the question of ID availability by Oct. 2. The majority was made up of three Republicans and one Democrat.

Two dissenting justices, both Democrats, said it was too close to the general election to consider the merits of the law and that the lower-court decision should be reversed.

“The ruling is under review,” said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly, declining to comment further. Republican Governor Tom Corbett, who backed the law, said in a statement following the decision that officials will continue to assist residents in obtaining “the proper identification to vote on election day.”

Proponents argued the ID law, like many others in so-called swing states across the country, is needed to stop voter fraud. In July, the state conceded in court papers that there were no incidents or investigations of the type of in-person voter fraud the law is intended to prevent.

Democratic Voters

The ACLU argued the measure was aimed at keeping Democratic voters away from the polls.

After a week-long trial in Harrisburg, Simpson ruled the plaintiffs failed to prove voters would be disenfranchised by the law. The statute is reasonable and non-discriminatory when viewed in the context of the widespread use of photo IDs in daily life, the judge, a Republican, said in his ruling.

The law is meant to establish “liberal access” to voter identification cards, the supreme court said yesterday, adding that Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation hasn’t lived up to that standard.

“The Department of State has realized and the Commonwealth parties have candidly conceded that the law is not being implemented according to its terms,” the court said. The state’s transportation department has made the ID qualification process more rigorous because so-called secure ID can also be used to board commercial aircraft, the court said.

‘Present Assessment’

The justices ordered Simpson to make “a present assessment” of the actual availability of the alternate forms of identification and to issue an order blocking enforcement of the law if there is a chance of voter disenfranchisement.

“We think the commonwealth is going to have trouble, no matter what” with getting a judge to uphold the law, given how few days remain before the election, Gersch said.

Pennsylvania has issued only about 9,000 of an estimated 100,000 needed IDs since the law took effect in March, ACLU of Pennsylvania Legal Director Vic Walczak said yesterday during the press conference.

Voting to return the case to Simpson were Republican Chief Justice Ronald Castille and associate justices Thomas Saylor and J. Michael Eakin. They were joined by Democrat Max Baer.

Justices Debra McCloskey Todd and Seamus McCaffrey, in separate dissents, said an immediate injunction was warranted.

“The eyes of the nation are upon us, and this court has chosen to punt rather than act,” Todd wrote. “I will have no part of it.”

The case is Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 71 MAP 2012, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg).

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