Pa. Supreme Court Orders Additional Review for Voter ID Law
Voters show identification as they sign in to vote during the Republican primary election April 24, 2012 at Bodine High School in Philadelphia, Pa. Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/ Getty Images.
In a 4-2 decision Tuesday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated a lower court’s decision to uphold Pennsylvania’s strict new voter ID law, asking that it review whether the new law will disenfranchise voters.
“[W]e 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…,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion. “Given this state of affairs, we are not satisfied with a mere predictive judgment based primarily on the assurances of government officials, even though we have no doubt they are proceeding in good faith.”
A lower court ruled in favor of upholding the law last month.
Seven weeks before election day, this decision is the latest development in the day-to-day debate on the recent law and the fate of the state’s 20 electoral votes. On Monday, former Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell said the law, which requires voters to produce a sanctioned form of photo identification in order to cast a ballot, should be delayed.
“If we didn’t pass this law to help [Mitt] Romney, what’s the rush?” said Rendell on Monday during a debate at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Rendell, a Democrat who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, was participating in a program in conjunction with a week-long series of events to mark the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
“Why not wait until we get this correct?” Rendell said.
Passed eight months ago by a Republican-controlled House and Senate and signed by Republican governor Tom Corbett, the Voter ID legislation received even more criticism when Republican House Leader Mike Turzai told a partisan audience that by suppressing votes among a population of voters who don’t have a driver’s license or other official photo identification, the law would deliver the state’s 20 electoral votes to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president of the United States.
Proponents of the law say that it is designed to discourage voter fraud. Critics argue against the potentially prohibitive cost and difficulty of obtaining these documents, as well as the fact that supporters have not produced an incidence of voter fraud to justify the requirement.
With the law set to be enforced for the upcoming presidential election, the plaintiffs in this case — who include the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, the NAACP, and the Homeless Advocacy Project — argue that most of the estimated 750,000 eligible voters who don’t have acceptable photo identification won’t have time to obtain it before November 6th.
The law initially required voters to obtain a photo identification from the state driving facility, which requires a voter to submit an original birth certificate, social security card and proof of residency. In July, the NewsHour reported on the difficulty some voters faced in getting an ID.
Thus far about 9,000 people have obtained Department of Transportation photo identification cards in advance of the election. State officials predict that another “few thousand” will be issued before Election Day.
Since its passage, requirements in the law have been modified twice, including last month’s establishment of a same-day photo identification card for people who’ve lost or misplaced their birth certificate and social security card and can’t get a copy of it free of charge.
Critics argue that the same-day photo ID won’t be an option for native-born residents. Voters born in the state who can’t find the documents still must make two trips to a state driver’s license facility. First one must fill out a request to certify their birth record. After receiving a response, the voter must return to the facility with the letter, a Social Security card and two proofs of residency, according to Committee of Seventy, a non-partisan group that works to ensure government accountability in the state.
“There are a certain number of folks who are not going to be able to vote,” Michael P. Williams, team leader for the NAACP’s Voter Empowerment Project said during Monday’s debate.
“I’m expecting chaos at the polls,” Dorothy Barnes, a volunteer voter advocate said. Voters without photo identification will be allowed to cast a provisional ballot and then will have six days to verify their identity in order for the ballot to be counted.
Even voters who have a driver’s license may experience difficulties at the polls. The law requires the information on the voter registration cart to “substantially conform” to the name on the photo identification card.
Pennsylvania voter Marsha Hurst’s voter registration card features a hyphenated surname. Her driver’s license lists a single surname.
“When I voted in the primaries the election judge told me then that could be a problem in the general election,” Hurst said.
Even if an election worker at neighborhood-based polling precincts know the voter, they may be obligated to offer the voter with inconsistent documents an alternate voting method. And poll watchers of either party on site on Election Day can challenge a decision to allow the person to vote.