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Judge upholds Pa. voter ID law

| Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, 9:32 a.m.

HARRISBURG — A Commonwealth Court judge on Wednesday refused to stop the state from requiring voters to show photo identification in the November election, a decision opponents say they will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Judge Robert Simpson turned down a bid by voters and groups, such as the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, to block use of the law.

Simpson, a Republican, said he believes the state will administer the first-time program “in a nonpartisan, even-handed way,” and that he was not convinced that the law would disenfranchise qualified voters.

“We will be appealing this decision to the Supreme Court,” said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Firm of Philadelphia. That could happen as soon as Thursday, she said. “We will ask the court to expedite the decision.”

If the request for a temporary injunction fails, law firms challenging Act 18 likely would ask for a permanent injunction, even if that occurs after the election, Clarke said.

Opponents argued the law would block votes by those who don't have proper ID, although no clear number ever emerged of how many people would be impacted.

“I just can't believe it,” said Viviette Applewhite, 93, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Too many people have fought for the right to vote to have it taken away like this.”

Clarke predicted federal challenges as well. The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing Pennsylvania's law.

“I'd be shocked if they don't file a lawsuit,” said Katie Goldman of Buchanan Ingersoll, who chairs the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association.

The Republican-controlled state House and Senate in March sent the bill to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who signed it. Supporters say it will safeguard the integrity of elections and prevent fraud.

“Now that the court has upheld the constitutionality of the law, we can continue to focus our attention on ensuring that every Pennsylvania citizen who wants to vote has the identification necessary to make sure their vote counts,” Corbett said in a statement.

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, who sponsored the bill, said Simpson's ruling was “just and based on the Constitution.” Other Republicans added praise as well.

“With sensational headlines and half-truths about this legislation being touted by partisan critics, we are fortunate that the Commonwealth Court realized that the sanctity of our elections was at stake — and took appropriate action to protect a cherished right,” said state Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason.

“The elections in the commonwealth will be on a more level playing field, thanks to voter ID and other recent election reforms,” said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.

Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chair Nancy Patton Mills said the local party “will continue to call and door-knock voters to ensure they have the necessary ID and work with them if they do not.”

Democrats complained passage of the law was part of a GOP effort in other states to tamp down the vote of Democratic-leaning, low-income people, seniors and minorities — who would be least likely to have identification — helping Republicans in the election.

They criticized Turzai for telling the Republican State Committee in June that the new law would help Mitt Romney carry Pennsylvania in the presidential election.

“A threat to one person's right to vote is a threat to all of us,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.

Throughout a six-day hearing, estimates varied widely on how many people potentially would not have proper ID, ranging from 78,000 to more than 1 million. Simpson said he rejected attempts by the law's opponents to “inflate the numbers in various ways.”

Those whose IDs are challenged will be allowed to cast provisional ballots and prove later that they are who they say. Poll workers asked voters for ID during the spring primary but did not require it for voting.

Some opponents still were not convinced.

“Older adults who are currently registered and have voted for years will be denied their most basic right to vote in November simply because they don't have the right kind of identification in time for the general election,” said AARP Pennsylvania State Director Ivonne Gutiérrez Bucher.

“The court had a chance to intercede the Pennsylvania legislators' attempt to suppress the vote on Election Day,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the national NAACP. “However, with today's decision and the estimated amount of Pennsylvanians who lack the required photo ID, we will witness a marked decrease in voter turnout and in the number of ballots that will be counted on and after Election Day.”

The best opponents of the law can hope for on appeal is a 4-2 vote on the Supreme Court to block the law, said Heather Heidelbaugh, a Downtown lawyer who has handled high-profile election law cases. But “I think the best they could do is 3-3,” she said.

With Republican Justice Joan Orie Melvin suspended while she awaits trial on corruption charges, the court is divided between three Republicans and three Democrats. In the event of a deadlock, Simpson's ruling prevails. Chief Justice Ronald Castille, a Republican, bucked partisan labels by siding with Democrats on legislative redistricting and overturning a GOP-crafted plan.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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