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Why judge refused to block Pennsylvania voter ID law

The ruling means that the Republican-backed voter ID law remains in effect for now. Opponents fear the law will suppress turnout among key Democratic constituencies, and have vowed to appeal.

By Staff writer / August 15, 2012

Protesters chant as Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court holds the first hearings in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Republican legislature’s Voter ID law in this recent file photo.

Stephen Flood/AP/The Express-Times

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A Pennsylvania judge on Wednesday declined to block a new voter ID law that critics charge will suppress turnout among poor, elderly, and minority voters likely to support President Obama.

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The ruling was the latest salvo in an escalating legal war across the country over voting procedures and requirements in advance of the November presidential election.

The case is one of several voter ID laws passed by Republican lawmakers that are being challenged in court as a form of voter suppression. Supporters say showing ID at the polls is an efficient safeguard against voter fraud, including voting by non-citizens.

After Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled state legislature passed the ID law in March, the state House majority leader boasted that the new requirement would help deliver the state’s key electoral votes to Mr. Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

In his ruling, Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson called the politician’s remarks “disturbing,” and “tendentious,” but he said the voter ID applies equally to all voters in the state and does not violate any constitutional protections.

The new law “does not expressly disenfranchise or burden any qualified elector or group of electors,” Judge Simpson wrote.

“It imposes only a limited burden on voters’ rights, and the burden does not outweigh the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep,” he said in the 70-page decision.

Wednesday’s ruling focused on the request to temporarily block the law ahead of the election, not the entirety of the law itself. An appeal is expected.

Obama’s own Justice Department is seeking to block similar laws in Texas and South Carolina, and is considering filing a new lawsuit against the Pennsylvania measure.

The Pennsylvania case began in May when lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of other groups asked Simpson to invalidate the law on grounds that it would disenfranchise and deter hundreds of thousands of qualified voters who lacked the required government-issued identification.

Simpson rejected those arguments, saying that state lawmakers did not violate any protections of the Pennsylvania or federal constitutions by requiring voters to show a drivers’ license or other photo ID before casting a ballot.

“The photo ID requirement … is a reasonable, non-discriminatory, non-severe burden when viewed in the broader context of the widespread use of photo ID in daily life,” he wrote.

“The Commonwealth’s asserted interest in protecting public confidence in elections is a relevant and legitimate state interest sufficiently weighty to justify the burden,” he said.

During a six-day hearing last month, state officials said there had been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania. But they said the measure nonetheless was necessary to safeguard and bolster the integrity of the election process.  

Critics said the new law was a partisan effort to disenfranchise certain vulnerable voters who would have difficulty obtaining the supporting documents necessary to qualify for the mandated ID.

Democrats argue that such voters are more likely to support Democratic candidates – including Obama.

In denying the requested injunction, Simpson said the commonwealth was prepared to offer free state-issued IDs, and that elderly or disabled voters are permitted to vote via absentee ballot.

In addition, he said, any citizen who arrives at the polls without the necessary ID must be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that will be counted if they present identification to the board of elections within six days.

The judge said his ruling is in line with the US Supreme Court’s decision upholding Indiana’s voter ID law in 2008, and decisions upholding similar laws in New Mexico, Georgia, and Michigan.

Simpson said only one voter ID law had been blocked since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2008. Wisconsin’s voter ID law, passed in 2011, is the target of four different challenges. It is currently blocked. The case is under appeal.

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