Voter Suppression Contested in PA Commonwealth Court

Pa. voter ID law far from a done deal

November 14, 2012 12:11 am
  • Early voters leave the Green Tree Municipal Building after casting their ballot.
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By Timothy McNulty / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

While the presidential race is over, Pennsylvania’s voter identification law and the fights over it live on.

The photo ID requirements suspended for last week’s election remain in place for the state’s May 21 primary, when Pittsburgh’s mayor and other local and judicial offices will be on the ballot, and legal challenges to the ID law remain on the docket, too. Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who temporarily stayed enforcement of the requirements Oct. 2, will hold a status conference Dec. 13 on efforts to permanently block them.

“Our position is this law is not constitutional and cannot be constitutional without some legislative fixes,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

The ACLU and other challengers contend the state has still not done enough to ensure all voters were afforded free IDs for voting, and argue more voters (especially young ones) will come on the rolls in future years to swell the numbers without acceptable identification. Currently PennDOT IDs, U.S. passports and other IDs with expiration dates from governments, the military, state-affiliated nursing homes and colleges are acceptable, but challengers want others such as veteran and welfare cards to be allowed.

After the approval of the voter ID bill in March, the state initially required those applying for voting-only ID cards to visit driver’s license centers armed with Social Security cards, birth certificates with a raised seal, and proofs of residency. As Judge Simpson’s decision drew closer the state eased the requirements to allow applicants to merely submit their Social Security numbers and have them checked against Department of State and PennDOT records.

That easing in turn annoyed some Republican supporters of the voter ID law, which was approved in March without any Democratic votes. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, a lead sponsor, wrote last month that the new IDs are “unsecure” and criticized their approval by Judge Simpson and the Corbett administration as “skewed in favor of the lazy who refuse to exercise the necessary work ethic to meet the commonsense requirements to obtain an acceptable photo ID.”

Republicans argued the requirements were necessary to guard against voter fraud, though the state Attorney General’s office has stipulated it has no evidence of in-person Election Day fraud in Pennsylvania. Supporters remain skeptical, however, and have lately pointed to the fact that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney received zero votes in 59 Philadelphia voting districts Nov. 6. He received no votes in four Pittsburgh districts.

The state issued 15,961 voting-only IDs through Nov. 5, with 12,418 issued by PennDOT and 3,543 by the Department of State. The state plans to keep offering the IDs, though its advertising campaign on voter ID requirements ended with the Nov. 6 election.

“We’re advising folks to go get IDs. As of now, they are in effect unless they’re overturned,” said Department of State spokesman Ron Ruman.

Confusion over the requirements persisted on Election Day. Election judges statewide were told to ask voters Nov. 6 for photo ID but not require it for voting, though some did not comply. “We did see a lot of judges of elections not ask for ID,” said Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director of the Philadelphia good government group Committee of Seventy. “They didn’t like the law to begin with, and as long as they weren’t being penalized they weren’t going to ask.”

Some went the other way. The ACLU investigated reports of polls in Beaver, Butler and Washington counties of poll workers displaying signs that said IDs were required for voting, and workers elsewhere were delivered packets by their election boards with inaccurate information.

If the ID requirements remain in place in May there should be lower turnout — and therefore pressure — for poll workers to face. Turnout was only 25 percent in the last Pittsburgh mayoral year, and in Philadelphia the main local races are for controller and District Attorney. On the appellate bench, statewide Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth court seats are due to be contested. Special elections also need to be called to fill the state House districts held by Matt Smith and Eugene DePasquale, who were elected to higher offices Tuesday.

The next high-profile election battle over the requirements may be pushed off until the 2014 gubernatorial race, where Democrats are currently itching to take on Gov. Tom Corbett. He has the lowest poll numbers of any Republican governor nationwide elected in 2010, according to Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm found to be one of the most accurate pollsters of the presidential race.

Maybe the legal battle will still be going on then, too. The ACLU is pledging to take it as far as possible until the requirements are rejected or fundamentally changed.

“Until it’s declared unconstitutional we’re not going to give in,” Mr. Walczak said. “In my heart of hearts there is no way to set up any law that for no good reason results in voters being disenfranchised.”

Tim McNulty: or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.
First Published November 14, 2012 12:00 a

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