Court considers stay on voter law
Two justices questioned the need to implement the state’s Voter ID law prior to the November election, while a third brought up a provision that attorneys representing the state acknowledged could not be followed, during a Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearing Sept. 13 on a challenge to the law.
In August, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson denied a request by civil rights groups for a preliminary injunction blocking implementation of a new photo ID requirement. Those who challenged the law, known as Act 18, appealed to the Supreme Court.
Under the Republicanbacked law, passed in March along party lines, a valid photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport, must be presented at the polls in order to vote. Recently, the state announced those who lack the documentation to obtain a valid photo ID can obtain a free Department of State photo ID that could be used only for voting by signLnJ Dn DIfiGDYLW DnG SURYLGing a Social Security number and proof of residence at a PennDOT driver’s license center.
Republicans contend the law is intended to prevent voter fraud. Democrats say
the Legislature failed to show any proof of voter fraud and the law will disenfranchise the elderly and poor urban voters, the latter of whom are more likely to vote Democratic, and is a thinly veiled attempt to have Pennsylvania go to Mitt Romney in the presidential election.
David Gersch, representing those seeking the injunction, said the law was “disenfranchising many voters and burdening many others.” The state previously stipulated it “knew of no in-person fraud … and none likely to occur in the November election absent Act 18,” he said.
The problem “is in requiring a photo ID people don’t have and have a hard time getting,” Gersch said. The state “must be able to ensure that all can get photo ID.”
An estimated 1 percent to 9 percent of the state’s voters — 100,000 to 500,000 — do not have a valid voter ID, he said, noting there are less than 60 days to Election Day. Nine counties in the state that have no PennDOT facility, and in 10 the DMV is open only one day a week, he said.
“We think it’s much closer to 1 percent,” John Knorr, an attorney from the state Attorney General’s Office, said. The claim some have made that 1 million with be without a voter ID on Election Day “is a fantasy,” he said.
Knorr argued the burden was “minimal,” and that “most people can get voter IDs.”
Justices Seamus McCaffery and Debra McCloskey Todd asked why the law had to go into effect prior to the November election. “What’s the rush?” Todd asked. “It’s a judgment by the General Assembly,” Knorr responded.
Taking the 1 percent estimate, “89,000 Pennsylvanians could possibly be disenfranchised,” McCaffery said, adding, “There’s no fraud, is there?”
“We can’t say that,” Knorr said. The 89,000 “at one time didn’t have the necessary ID … it’s not to say they can’t get it.”
Referring to a statement House Majority Leader Mike Turzai made at a state committee meeting that the law would enable Mitt Romney to win the state, McCaffrey suggested the law was a political move that would “trample on the rights of our citizens.”
Justice Thomas Saylor, reading a provision in the law stating a voter lacking the documents necessary to obtain a valid voter ID could fill out an affidavit and be issued an ID, asked, “Can that ever happen? I thought PennDOT took the position … it will not issue [a valid photo ID] because it could be used for purposes other than voting.”
Knorr acknowledged the provision could not be complied with, as it would not meet federal requirements regarding security, such as an ID valid for use in boarding an airplane.
In Virginia, the state mailed a type of voter ID to every voter, Gersch said. In Georgia, a law was passed allowing everyone to vote by absentee ballot. Michigan allows voters without a photo ID to swear on an affidavit at the polling place.
“Other states have been able to resolve that problem,” he said. “Act 18 is a case study in how not to go about doing it.”
“If the Legislature can’t get everyone the right to vote, the law should not be upheld,” Gersch said.
A decision on the Voter ID appeal is expected before the end of September, according to an online article in The Wall Street Journal. A 3-3 split would affirm the Commonwealth Court decision not to stay implementation of the law.
The court also heard arguments on the state’s reapportionment plan Sept. 13, but the November elections for the state House and Senate will be held in accordance with the status quo.