Voter ID opponents re-energize on eve of trial
HARRISBURG — The state's capital city is “ground zero for voting rights” in the North, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous told a Capitol crowd days before a trial is to start on Pennsylvania's voter identification law.
Jealous spoke at a rally in advance of the case that opens on Monday in Commonwealth Court. Dissecting Act 18, the state's voter ID law, may take as long as two weeks.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Interest Center of Philadelphia, and a Washington law firm will argue before Judge Bernard McGinley, a Democrat, that the law must be overturned.
The Pennsylvania Department of State, represented by the Attorney General's Office, the Office of General Counsel, and a Philadelphia law firm will defend the law that Gov. Tom Corbett signed in March 2012.
The court in October partially granted a preliminary injunction. Poll workers in the November election could ask voters to show ID, but they were not obligated to produce one.
Republicans controlling the Legislature pushed the bill, saying it would guard against fraud and maintain the integrity of the electoral process.
The Legislature established “a solution to a problem that did not exist,” Jean Brown, an NAACP vice president, told rallying organizations opposed to the law.
The law's opponents still cite a comment House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, made when he told the Pennsylvania State Republican Committee that the law would let GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania. Romney lost Pennsylvania to President Obama.
Turzai was speaking to a political group and meant that “for the first time, there would be a level playing field,” his spokesman Steve Miskin said.
“There's rhetoric by a lot of parties,” said Nils Frederiksen, the general counsel's spokesman. “At the end of the day, the law is the law.”
Jealous, speaking before a crowd of hundreds, used Turzai's remark as an example of how politicians allegedly try to steal votes. Opponents of the law claim that people who don't have IDs tend to be Democrats, minorities, the elderly and disabled.
“Ludicrous,” Miskin said. “We are trying to prevent people from stealing votes.”
The plaintiffs argue in their latest court brief that at least “tens of thousands of voters will be disenfranchised.” Potentially “hundreds of thousands” lack identification, the ACLU and other challengers claim.
Frederiksen said the reality is that Pennsylvanians registered to vote who don't have photo IDs can get a Department of State card without documentation. They need only to submit a date of birth, a name, an address and the last four digits of a Social Security number. PennDOT driver's license centers have the cards, which are valid for 20 elections over 10 years, he said.
“There is no obstacle,” he said.
Thirty states have voter ID requirements. Only 11 require photo identification cards. Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and Tennessee have “strict” photo ID requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
Pennsylvania's law is patterned after the Indiana law, which the Supreme Court upheld.
It might seem to casual observers that Pennsylvania's law has been a moving target in the courts.
The lawsuit challenging the law was filed in May 2012. A hearing on the preliminary injunction took place in July, and a month later, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, refused to issue an injunction.
The case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which returned it to Simpson with narrow parameters. Another hearing took place in September.
In October, Simpson issued the partial injunction to allow people to vote without using provisional ballots.
The law established provisional ballots for voters without adequate photo ID. Under the law, they could vote but had to return to election officials with proper documentation. No such requirement was enforced in November.
Frederiksen said five of seven original plaintiffs who claimed they could not get a photo ID were dismissed from the case.
“The process has evolved. The process has improved,” he said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.