Voter ID Fight Resumes in Pennsylvania Court

Jul 14, 2013

Pennsylvania's controversial voter ID law will get its day in court starting this week, but it's unlikely a resolution will be reached any time soon.
Credit jamelah / Flickr

Pennsylvania's controversial voter ID law is back in Commonwealth Court this week, but it's unlikely to be decided conclusively any time soon.

Voting rights advocates are seeking a permanent injunction against the 2012 law, which requires Pennsylvania voters to present state-issued photo identification in order to cast a ballot. Implementation was postponed ahead of last year's general election and again in 2013 in advance of the May primary.

Arguments in the previous first round of legal challenges had focused largely on the timing of the legislation, which critics said was rushed through by majority Republicans seeking an edge for GOP candidates in the November election. Courts agreed the timing left insufficient opportunity for voters to learn about the law and secure the necessary documentation.

Since then, the commonwealth has spent $5 million on a media campaign to educate voters about the new requirements. Lawyers for the Corbett administration will argue Monday that Pennsylvanians have now had ample opportunity to obtain either a driver's license or a free voting ID from the Department of State.

"One of the main complaints of opponents was that it was too quick to get it implemented by last fall's election," department spokesman Ron Ruman said. "So obviously, that time has long passed, and we're hoping we can move forward with it."

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and other groups are pursuing the legal challenge on behalf of plaintiffs who say their constitutional voting rights have been compromised by unnecessarily onerous requirements. They reject the idea that time and voter outreach have done anything to mitigate the circumstances.

"There's no evidence that the commonwealth was able to effectively reach all the voters," ACLU-PA Legal Director Vic Walczak said. "In fact, the best evidence out there that this media campaign didn't work is that there's still less than 17,000 IDs that have been issued for voting purposes in the 16 or 17 months that the law has been in effect."

The plaintiffs will present evidence that "hundreds of thousands" would be disenfranchised by the requirement, according to attorney Michael Rubin.

"The commonwealth, including the governor and (Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol) Aichele, worked hand in hand in drafting this law, and time and again they were given choices to make it easier, or to make it harder, for people to vote. They consistently chose to make it harder to vote," Rubin said. "That's what this lawsuit is about at its core. It's about the choices made to make it harder for people to vote."

The administration and GOP lawmakers continue to maintain that the ID requirement is necessary to combat voter fraud, though attorneys for the Department of State stipulated in last year's trial that no evidence exists to support the proposition that such fraudulent voting is widespread in Pennsylvania.

"That stipulation is still in place," said Jennifer Clarke of the Public Interest Law Center. "And in addition, since then the state has admitted that they had no evidence of fraud in either the November election or the May election."

The trial will last one to two weeks, with a ruling likely to arrive late in the fall. With both sides expected to appeal an unfavorable decision, the case is all but certain to go back to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, pushing the likely timeline for a final resolution into 2014 or potentially later.

However, that schedule — pertaining to the plaintiffs' request for a permanent injunction — will not affect the upcoming general election in November. The Commonwealth Court will rule separately in August on a continuation of the existing preliminary injunction that barred implementation of the law in either of the previous two elections.

Clarke said that will leave time for the Supreme Court to rule ahead of the general election on November 5.