A Pennsylvania judge issued an injunction on Tuesday blocking the requirement that voters must present photo ID to have their ballots counted in the November election.
The case is being closely watched amid a raging partisan debate over voter ID laws nationwide. Republican-controlled legislatures in several states have passed such laws, citing the need to prevent election fraud and foster confidence in the election system. Democrats have opposed the efforts, accusing Republicans of trying to disenfranchise poor and elderly voters who may lack the funds, mobility, and time needed to obtain an accepted form of photo identification prior to the election.
Although the US Supreme Court upheld a similar photo ID law in Indiana in 2008, lower-court rulings have been mixed. Similar laws have been blocked in Missouri, Wisconsin, and Texas, while they have been upheld in Georgia and New Hampshire. South Carolina’s law is currently under review in federal court.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson had earlier refused to block the Pennsylvania law, saying that despite testimony about logistical problems, long lines, and confusion among voters, he did not believe it would lead to voter disenfranchisement.
The judge said that any voters lacking proper ID would be given the opportunity to cast a provisional ballot that could be verified and counted within six days of the election.
Lawyers challenging the voter ID law appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That court returned the case to Judge Simpson with instructions to take a closer look at the disenfranchisement issue.
Simpson said his injunction was tailored to address the portion of the new voter ID law that threatened to disenfranchise would-be voters. He noted that the law, which took effect March 14, had provided for a transition period that allowed voters to vote without presenting an ID during the Pennsylvania primary election.
In effect, the judge extended that transition period to include the general election on November 6. He said in a 16-page decision that election officials may continue to ask prospective voters to show photo ID at the polls, but that each vote must be counted regardless of whether a valid photo ID is presented.
He also directed that voters without identification would not have to cast provisional ballots. Instead, their ballots would be immediately counted.
Pennsylvania officials have issued roughly 12,000 new photo IDs in advance of the election. An estimated 100,000 eligible voters are believed to lack valid photo identification in the state, but estimates vary widely.
Simpson, who conducted a week-long hearing in August and two days of hearings last week, said he had expected the commonwealth to have issued more photo IDs by now. In that light, Simpson said that he was no longer convinced in his “predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement…”
Opponents of the Pennsylvania ID law praised the ruling.
“Today’s decision is a clear victory for Pennsylvania voters and the cause of voting rights across the country,” Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice said in a statement.
Those who support the new law saw the decision as a setback.
“The court’s ruling accepts the principle that the voter ID rules are legal. Unfortunately, the timing of the change meant that Pennsylvania will have to wait one more election cycle before they can be sure their elections are fraud-free,” said Horace Cooper of the National Center for Public Policy Research.
But not all opponents of the law were pleased with the narrowness of Simpson’s opinion. Lawyers challenging the ID law had asked the judge to block the entire statute – including the requirement that poll workers ask for photo ID.
“While we’re happy that voters in Pennsylvania will not be turned away if they do not have an ID, we are concerned that the ruling will allow election workers to ask for ID at the polls and this could cause confusion,” said Advancement Project Co-director Penda Hair. “This injunction serves as a mere Band-Aid for the law’s inherent problems, not an effective remedy.”
Justin Danof, general counsel of the National Center for Public Policy Research, was also displeased with the outcome. But for a different reason.
"Judge Simpson should have held strong to his prior convictions and the rule of law,” he said, “rather than bending to race-baiters and fraud enablers.”
Ms. Weiser of the Brennan Center said the ruling does not end the controversy over the ID law.
“We are pleased the court refused to allow politicians to manipulate the system for their own benefit by rushing through new voting requirements,” she said. “Now we must ensure voters are informed of their rights and poll workers are trained properly so no voter is turned away because they don’t have ID.”