Judge Halts Pennsylvania's Voter ID Law

PHOTO: Pennsylvania state representative Robert Freeman speaks to educate and inform on the topic of the Voter ID law in Easton?s Centre Square, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 in Easton, Pa.

Stephen Flood/AP Photo/The Express-Times

Voters in Pennsylvania will not need to show valid photo ID to cast ballots in the election this November.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled on Thursday to postpone Pennsylvania's tough new voter identification requirement, ordering that it not be enforced in the presidential election, reports the Associated Press. He has allowed it to go into full effect next year, but acknowledged that an appeal to the state Supreme Court is possible.

The judge was asked to rule on whether the state demonstrated that it has done an adequate job of providing IDs to people who need them.

Simpson had been required to rule by October 2, after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court returned the case to him following his August decision to uphold the law. The law was originally passed by a Republican legislature earlier this year without a single Democratic vote.

"I expected more photo IDs to have been issued by this time," Simpson said. "For this reason, I accept Petitioners' argument that in the remaining five weeks before the general election, the gap between the photo IDs issued and the estimated need will not be closed.... Consequently, I am not still convinced in my predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the Commonwealth's implementation of a voter identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election. Under these circumstances, I am obliged to enter a preliminary injunction."

Proponents of the law said it would combat voter fraud, but the state has acknowledged that not a single case of in-person voter fraud, the type of fraud the law is designed to prevent, has ever occurred in the state.

Liberal opponents of the law, including the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that brought the lawsuit against Pennsylvania, have accused conservative supporters of backing it to give them a partisan advantage at the ballot box.The people least likely to have the required ID -- minorities, the elderly and students -- tend to vote Democratic.

"We are very glad voters will not be turned away from the polls this November if they do have an ID," Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis said in a statement. "The evidence made it clear to the judge that this law would indeed disenfranchise voters and that the Commonwealth was not equipped to implement it fairly right now."

Getting an ID can be complicated

While the required IDs are free, states want to see a birth certificate or passport before issuing one, and providing such documentation can be expensive and time-consuming for those that don't already have the documents.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School has estimated that more than 10 percent of voting-age Americans do not have a government-issued ID. People without IDs are often minorities, the elderly, the poor, and the undereducated.

Jumping into the car and driving to the nearest ID-issuing office with the required documents in-hand might sound easy to some, but it's nearly impossible for people such as housebound seniors and some minorities. Puerto Rico, for example, voided all of its birth certificates, so Puerto Ricans living in Pennsylvania who haven't replaced their birth certificate since 2010 will need to get a new one before they can apply for the required ID.

Opponents say voter ID laws violate the Voting Rights Act, which forbids states from limiting minority groups' right to vote.

According to the Brennan Center, 25 percent of African-Americans do not have a government-issued photo ID. Among white citizens, that number drops to eight percent.

The states that have passed strict voter ID laws are generally Republican. Kansas, for example, has a strict photo ID requirement in place.

Other states, such as South Carolina, have voter ID laws currently in court.

A federal court in Texas recently overturned a voter ID law in that state after ruling that the costs of obtaining a photo ID disproportionately hurt minorities, specifically Hispanics.

And a somewhat unlikely opponent has emerged in the form of comedian Sarah Silverman. She released a video in mid-September encouraging people to make sure they have the required ID.

The New York Times reports that the video was paid for by the Obama-supporting Jewish Council for Education and Research.

Silverman explains in the video that social security cards, veteran ID cards and student IDs will not be sufficient in many states, while noting that handgun permits are acceptable in some cases.

"It makes perfect sense," she says. "Get these kids gun permits. Ah, I feel safer from voter fraud already."

A disconnect between perception and reality

Most Pennsylvanians support the voter ID law. According to a Franklin and Marshall College poll, 59 percent support the ID requirement while 39 percent oppose it. According to the Associated Press, the state has taken steps to encourage people to get IDs, sending out postcards and airing television and radio spots.

But interestingly, while 99 percent of Pennsylvanians polled by the college said they already have the needed ID, according to Matt Barreto, a Latino politics scholar and professor at the University of Washington who filed a report on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case, that's not true. And that perception is a key part of the problem.

According to Barreto, 14 percent of Pennsylvania's voter-eligible population actually lacks the required ID. And that number is significant because it's more than double the number of votes that comprised Obama's margin of victory in 2008.

Barreto certainly wants to see the law fall, and while the 14 percent is disputable, even the Pennsylvania Secretary of State's office acknowledged that more than nine percent of Pennsylvanians lack the required ID.

The case has taken center stage in the run-up to the November election. While Obama is leading Pennsylvania in the polls, Romney is not far behind, and opponents of the voter ID law argue its implementation could prevent people from obtaining IDs in time for the election.

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