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What 'rogues and vagabonds' have to do with Pennsylvania voter ID law

An 1869 ruling, part of which was cited by a Pennsylvania state judge to uphold a voter ID law, has hit a nerve among critics for language that recalls 'outright prejudice.' The case is before the state's high court.

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To many Americans, that language reeks of contempt for society’s have-nots even as its intent – to protect the franchise from fraud – has a contemporary political ring.

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“The use of Patterson as legal precedent is particularly relevant, because opponents of the law allege that the current Pennsylvania legislature is similarly trying to use the law to prevent certain people from voting – in this case, demographic groups that tend to vote Democratic,” writes Dan Froomkin on the Huffington Post.

To be sure, legal experts say the Supreme Court justices can find plenty of other reasons than 143-year-old legal writs for upholding or reversing Judge Simpson’s decision.

Moreover, Simpson did not rely on the controversial wording in Patterson to make his decision, instead citing a passage that says the discretion to secure the vote "belongs to the General Assembly, is a sound one, and cannot be reviewed by any other department of the government, except in a case of plain, palpable, and clear abuse of the power which actually infringes the rights of the electors."

“Based on the availability of absentee voting, provisional ballots and opportunities for judicial relief … for those with special hardships, I am not convinced... [Pennsylvanians] will not have their votes counted,” Judge Simpson finally ruled.

Supporters of the law say the contemporary impact of the law doesn’t carry any of the prejudice and xenophobia expressed by 19th century Supreme Court justices in the Patterson decision.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly “has not caused anyone to be disenfranchised. Nor has it changed the qualifications set forth in the Pennsylvania Constitution,” the conservative group Judicial Watch writes in a friend-of-the-court brief. “Rather it has maintained and promoted free and equal elections."

Seventeen states have strict voter ID laws and five more have laws being held up on federal and civil challenges. Mostly Republican legislatures have voted to firm up voting rules to curb perceptions of voter fraud, while most Democrats say that the rules disenfranchise some of their base support, namely minorities, the poor, and the elderly.

The Pennsylvania voter ID law could affect over 700,000 potential voters who currently don’t have an ID, but state lawyers convinced Judge Simpson that the barriers to getting a state-issued ID to vote weren't so onerous as to actually curtail voting rights. The state Supreme Court justices, divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, were not expected to make their ruling Thursday.


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