Pa. judge raises possibility he will move to block voter ID law
Angela Couloumbis | The Philadelphia Inquirer
HARRISBURG, Pa. — With just six weeks until the presidential election, a judge raised the possibility Tuesday that he would move to block Pennsylvania’s controversial voter ID law.
“I’m giving you a heads-up,” Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. told lawyers after a day’s testimony on whether the law is being implemented in ways that ensure no voters will be disenfranchised. “I think it’s a possibility there could be an injunction here.”
Simpson then asked lawyers on both sides to be prepared to return to court Thursday to present arguments on what such an injunction should look like. There is no hearing Wednesday because of Yom Kippur.
Simpson gave few if any further clues to what he may decide. But his comments provided a dramatic end to a day of testimony in a protracted and widely watched fight over the law, which requires voters to present photo identification at the polls.
Critics of the law have argued that it is being rushed into effect – it was enacted in March – and will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, particularly minorities, the elderly and the poor. Democrats have branded it a thinly veiled attempt by Republicans to suppress the vote for President Barack Obama on Nov. 6 and boost Mitt Romney’s chances of winning Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.
State officials have countered in public statements – and again in testimony Tuesday – that they have mounted an aggressive campaign of TV ads, mass mailings and other measures to educate voters about the law and provide free photo IDs to all who need them.
Simpson previously rejected civil-rights groups’ contentions that the law put too many burdens on voters. But on appeal, the state Supreme Court sent the case back to him this month.
The high court instructed him to evaluate officials’ efforts to provide the required photo ID cards and decide whether the state was providing the “liberal access” to those cards that the Legislature indicated when it passed the law.
In their 4-2 decision, the justices said Commonwealth Court was obliged to issue a preliminary injunction if it was not “convinced in its predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement” resulting from the law. That decision paved the way for this week’s hearings.
Lawyers fighting the law said they would ask Simpson on Thursday to block it from taking effect until there can be a full trial on its merits.
“The only proper course here is to enjoin the law,” said David Gersch, one of the attorneys for individual plaintiffs as well as civil-rights and civic groups such as the NAACP and League of Women Voters.
Alfred W. Putnam Jr., representing the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett, countered that officials had done all they could to ensure that every voter who needed a photo ID card can get one.
The latest effort was a step – formally announced Tuesday in court as the hearing began – to again relax requirements for residents seeking one of the state-issued photo IDs.
“The question raised is, is it too hard to get?” Putnam said in court of the voter ID cards. “And the answer is, it is not too hard to get.”
Under the new plan, which went into effect immediately, all voters will be able to apply for the voting-only picture ID by making one trip to a Department of Transportation licensing center, PennDot Deputy Secretary Kurt Myers testified later in the hearing as he detailed the new plan. He said the plan was implemented to address justices’ concerns about possible voter disenfranchisement.
Myers testified that voters will now be able to go to a PennDot licensing center and apply for a voting-only ID without first having to apply for the state’s non-driver ID, with its more stringent proof-of-identity requirements. Applicants also will no longer have to show proof of residence, though they will still be required to give their Social Security number.
If a voter ID application cannot be processed immediately, because of a problem matching either a person’s voter registration or Social Security information, PennDot will still take a voter’s photo and issue a card. The card will then be mailed to the voter at a later date, Myers testified.
The law’s critics called this a last-ditch effort to salvage voter ID and said this was the second time the state had made eleventh-hour changes to cope with problems of implementation. They pointed to July, when, on the eve of the initial hearings before Simpson, the state announced its plan for the new voting-only cards. Previously, voters who lacked driver’s licenses could get a non-driver photo ID card from PennDot only if they could show a birth certificate and Social Security card.
Putnam, the Corbett administration attorney, said Tuesday the state had responded quickly and effectively to ensure that voters seeking photo ID cards have access to them.
“The actual number of people who need to get the voter ID we believe is relatively small,” he said. “And they’re having success in getting them.”
The hearing resumes Thursday, with the plaintiffs expected to offer testimony from voters who previously ran into trouble trying to obtain the new voting-only photo ID cards.
Simpson’s decision, which the state Supreme Court said needs to be announced by next Tuesday, is likely to be appealed back to the high court.
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