Voter ID law backed by Republicans faces legal test in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices on Thursday will examine the state's voter ID law, which was touted by a top state Republican as allowing Mitt Romney 'to win the state.'
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One of the Republicans, Justice Joan Orie Melvin, has been suspended since May after being charged in a seven-count indictment alleging that she used her state-paid staff to help run her election campaign.Skip to next paragraph
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Some analysts suggest the suspension of the Republican justice sets the stage for a potential 3-3 tie, with the court split along partisan lines. A tie vote would permit the lower court’s ruling to stand.
It will take the votes of at least four justices to overturn the earlier decision and block the ID law prior to the election.
Opponents of the law argue that there is no evidence of widespread election fraud. They say given the lack of a credible threat to the voting process, there is no justification to enact a measure that may prevent a large number of residents from voting.
One expert estimated that over 1 million registered voters in Pennsylvania do not possess the proper photo ID. He also estimated that an additional 1.3 million eligible voters lack proper ID.
“Voting is a fundamental right. The challenged law imposes significant burdens on the exercise of that right,” David Gersch wrote in his brief urging the justices to reverse the lower court and block the new law.
Mr. Gersch said the Pennsylvania constitution is more protective of the right to vote than the US Constitution, but that the lower court judge failed to apply that higher standard.
Lawyers for the commonwealth disagree. They say the ID law is an acceptable regulation of election procedures and is well within the realm of state lawmakers.
“The statute does not disenfranchise any class of voters, it merely tightens the voter identification requirements applicable to all voters,” Alfred Putnam wrote in his brief on behalf of Republican Gov. Thomas Corbett and Commonwealth Secretary Carol Aichele.
Commonwealth lawyers say that nothing prevents any Pennsylvania voter from casting a ballot. All voters are entitled to obtain a free ID and use it to vote, cast a provisional ballot on Election Day, or vote absentee.
No one will be denied a chance to vote, they say.
The debate boils down to a clash between competing visions of how best to protect the right to vote – by requiring ID at the polls or by making it as easy as possible for prospective voters to cast their ballots.
“At the end of the day, the question the appellants want this court to answer is: which policy is better?” Mr. Putnam wrote.
“This court has held on numerous occasions, however, that that question is one for the General Assembly, not the courts,” he said.
One important consideration may be how difficult – or easy – it is for low income and elderly residents to obtain free IDs being offered by the commonwealth in advance of the election.
In mid-August, one day after the commonwealth judge refused to block the Pennsylvania law, the lead plaintiff in the case, 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite, decided to try, once again, to obtain a free ID.
She boarded two public buses and eventually made her way to the state office. Ms. Applewhite told reporters she had been repeatedly denied an ID for years because she did not have a copy of her birth certificate and other required documents.
This time, however, the clerk accepted the documents she was able to produce – a Medicare card and a state-issued document showing her name. She also provided her social security number.
After a bit of detective work, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued Ms. Applewhite a free voter ID card.
Mission accomplished for Applewhite. But a larger question looms. What happens to the estimated hundreds of thousands of prospective voters who still lack the necessary ID?
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