Federal scrutiny of Pa. Voter ID law possible

| Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The Supreme Court's decision to throw out a 40-year-old formula for monitoring discrimination at the polls opens the door to potential federal scrutiny of Pennsylvania and its nascent Voter ID law, a Pittsburgh civil rights lawyer said.

Such a scenario would require Congress to update and expand oversight of local voting practices, though. Several people said that isn't likely.

“It's a devastating thing, because I do not believe that the Congress, as presently arranged, will come up with any realistic formula,” said Wendell Freeland of Shadyside, a lawyer and civil rights activist. “The Congress doesn't have the will to do this.”

Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised quick action on replacing the overturned section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“How big of a joke is that? This Congress that can't do anything,” said Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. “We can't pass a farm bill. This House especially.”

Doyle and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, expressed disappointment with the decision.

“Congress should come together in a bipartisan fashion to reaffirm the Voting Rights Act and put in place the necessary protections,” Casey said.

Other members of the Western Pennsylvania delegation did not respond to calls for comment.

The Department of Justice used power the act grants to challenge Voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina. A formula in the act's Section 4 determines which states and counties require more stringent review of voting laws before they're passed, based on 1972 data. They include much of the South, where discrimination was most rampant in the 1960s.

The Supreme Court struck down the formula and called on Congress to write a new one. It did not change the act's Section 2 that bans discrimination in voting laws.

Pennsylvania is not on the list of states that get more review. Freeland said enforcement of Voter ID could put the state, or at least Philadelphia, on the list if Congress passes strong legislation.

“The evidence in the Voter ID case would be substantial (and) show excessive challenges to voting,” he said.

A spokesman for the state Department of State called that unlikely.

“I can't imagine that Pennsylvania would be included in any new formula they come up with,” said Ron Ruman, whose department oversees elections. “If anything, I'd think that court ruling would shrink that list.”

The state passed a law last year requiring all voters to show identification in order to vote. A lawsuit and series of rulings blocked its implementation. A trial on the lawsuit is scheduled to begin in Commonwealth Court on July 15.

Last year, the Department of Justice cited the act's Section 2 in asking Pennsylvania for data on how many people have identification needed to vote. The state responded that the department had no grounds for an investigation, Ruman said.

“To my knowledge, we've never heard back,” he said.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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