Can GOP find votes in wreckage of Pennsylvania voter ID law?

A Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday reversed his earlier decision to let the state proceed with a tough new voter ID law in time for the 2012 election. The about-face could give the GOP some ammunition to rouse its base.

Keith Srakocic/AP/File
On Sept. 26, a man heads into the the Penndot Drivers License Center in Butler, Pa., near a sign telling of the requirement for voters to show an acceptable photo ID to vote. A court on Tuesday invalidated that requirement for the 2012 election.

Can the Republican Party turn a Pennsylvania court's decision to block a landmark voter ID law into a rallying cry to raise funds and rouse the GOP base to get out the vote in November?

Until Tuesday's decision, Democrats were the ones primarily citing the voter ID law, which they oppose, in a bid to mobilize their forces. Groups such as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP claimed that Republicans had imposed a new voter ID requirement to try to disenfranchise key Democratic constituencies, such as minorities, the elderly, and the young – much as earlier generations had used Jim Crow rules to disenfranchise black voters. Had the law been allowed to take effect, some legitimate Pennsylvania voters might be turned away from the polls, they said.

But the question now is whether Republicans will seek to capitalize from the ruling by state Judge Robert Simpson, who on Tuesday reversed his earlier decision to allow the controversial law to take effect. It would be easy, some say, to argue that the reversal subverts the will of the people and the state legislature and increases chances of a Democratic victory in November.

The court decision “might be part of a broader narrative that Republicans are using to get out the vote, pointing out that the playing field is a little tougher now, that [Democrats] will have an advantage from this decision and [Republicans] have to counter it,” says Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, Pa.

Polls show that 2 in 3 Americans, and a majority of nearly all demographic subgroups, support voter ID laws. Republicans have already argued in fundraising appeals that Democrats and their proxies going to all lengths to undermine a bedrock American principle – that every vote should count equally – and now may add that courts appear to be taking their side.

“That’s where you have Republicans seeing this as an issue they can push, that having a photo ID handy is not a big deal for Mr. Middle Class Voter, and, secondly, the powerful appeal [of the idea that] … your vote should not be diluted by the votes of ineligible voters,” says Charles Franklin, a polling expert at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison.

But most of the emotional energy in the national debate over voter ID laws has so far been concentrated on the Democratic side, pollsters say. Many Democratic activists are convinced that the spread of voter ID laws into 17 states is less an effort to sanctify the vote and more an effort to help Republicans win at the polls by by shutting out liberal voters.

Republicans have given that narrative plenty of fodder, as in the case of the Pennsylvania Republican who said at a GOP dinner in June that the state's voter ID law “is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

What’s more, opponents of voter ID laws have had the more powerful appeal, some political scientists say. They have identified actual voters, some of them elderly, who faced potentially insurmountable difficulties in voting this year, despite assurances from Pennsylvania officials that all eligible voters would be able to cast a ballot.

“Studies that point to the potential for voter fraud just don’t have the same appeal as personal narratives of the 90-year-old woman who marched with Martin Luther King who might lose her right to vote,” says Mr. Borick at the Institute of Public Opinion.

New voter ID laws in Indiana, Georgia, and a handful of other states have survived legal challenges. But laws in Texas, South Carolina, and Wisconsin have run into problems in the courts and, in some cases, opposition from the US Department of Justice. (US Attorney General Eric Holder this summer equated a disputed voter ID law in Texas to a “poll tax,” in reference to Jim Crow-era attempts to keep African-Americans from voting.)

While Democrats argue that such laws are unneeded because examples of in-person voter fraud are few, Republicans point to Georgia as an example of a state where minority representation in the vote rose dramatically after a voter ID law went into effect.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered Judge Simpson to reconsider his earlier decision to allow the law to take effect in time for the election, saying he must ensure that the state will meet its promise of providing easy access to photo IDs. It also said he had to block the law if he believes it will prevent any registered voter from casting a legal, countable ballot.

Last week, Simpson heard new testimony that included stories of confused government clerks and long lines at driver's license offices, as well as new requirements that made the process of securing an ID lengthy and cumbersome for some voters.

“The big issue really was, will this law be ready in 2012, and the high court said that’s not a given and, therefore, why rush it?” says Bolick. “The courts want to honor the democratic process, but also ensure the rights of individuals. Time is the answer in their mind.”

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