Pennsylvania Supreme Court orders second look at voter ID law

The state's Supreme Court asks whether the rush to implement the voter ID law in time for November's election might end up disenfranchising some Pennsylvanians. It wants the lower court judge to take a second look at that issue.

Michael Perez/AP
Joe Michetti holds a sign to demonstrate the opposition of Pennsylvania's new voter identification law during the NAACP voter ID rally, Sept. 13, in Philadelphia.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed a new voter ID law to proceed Tuesday, but it ordered the state judge who first OK’d the law to take a skeptical second look to make sure that, in the state's rush to provide IDs in time for the November election, Pennsylvanians aren’t being disenfranchised.

The 4-to-2 ruling suggests that the state has acted in “good faith” to ensure that all eligible voters could cast a ballot, but also asks if the rush to implement the law ahead of the 2012 election would damage “liberal access” to the polls.

“We are confronted with an ambitious effort on the part of the General Assembly to bring the new identification procedure into effect within a relatively short timeframe and an implementation process which has by no means been seamless in light of the serious operational constraints faced by the executive branch," the court's majority said in the ruling.

Primarily Republican-led legislatures have passed a number of tougher voting restrictions in the past two years aimed at ensuring that only eligible voters cast ballots. 

But Democrats, civil rights groups, and the US Department of Justice have raised questions in other states, including Texas and South Carolina, and have alleged that the new laws are veiled and illegal attempts to limit access to the polls for key Democratic constituencies. Seventeen states currently have voter ID laws, but there are lingering concerns in former Confederate states that the rules fit a pattern of prejudice against the poor and minorities, who, on average, are less likely to have a state-issued ID.

Research isn’t clear. Some studies have found that identity fraud at the voting booth is rare. But some states that have implemented voter ID laws, including Georgia, report that minority participation rates have not slipped, but rather have remained level or even increased.

According to federal findings, Pennsylvania does not have a tradition of voter disenfranchisement, which puts the question over whether the law is fair on the shoulders of the state Supreme Court. 

Judge Robert Simpson’s August ruling that the state could continue to implement the law was in part based on an 1869 state Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of the legislature to take action to maintain the integrity of the vote. But law scholars have pointed out that some of the language in that ruling referred to the problem of strumpets, rogues, and vagabonds in Philadelphia devaluing the votes of “honest” men – hints, critics say, of the prejudicial roots of modern voter ID laws.

The two dissenting judges said the Supreme Court is making a mistake in sending the case back to Judge Simpson, who already wrote that he believed that every Pennsylvanian who wanted an ID would have time to get one by Election Day. “The stated underpinnings of [the law] – election integrity and voter confidence – are undermined, not advanced, by this Court's chosen course,” writes Justice Debra Todd in a dissent. “Seven weeks before an election, the voters are entitled to know the rules."

At the same time, the Supreme Court’s order sets a “very, very high burden” on the commonwealth to ensure that the law is fair, given the tight time frame to make certain that all of the 700,000-plus Pennsylvanians who are without state-issued ID have access to one, Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia, told Reuters.

About 7,000 potential voters in the state have sought IDs for the purpose of voting since the law took effect in March. The state Department of Transportation says demand for the IDs has not been overwhelming.

If Judge Simpson, upon his review, finds that voters are being disenfranchised in any way, “that court is obliged to enter a preliminary injunction,” the justices wrote.

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