Constitutional showdown looms at voter ID trial

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HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s long-sidelined voter identification law is about to go on trial.


Civil libertarians who contend that the statute violates voters’ rights persuaded a state judge to bar enforcement of the photo ID requirement during the 2012 presidential election and the May primary. But those were temporary orders based on a narrower context; the trial set to begin July 15 in Commonwealth Court will explore the more complicated constitutional questions.


It could be the beginning of a long process. Lawyers in the case say a panel of Commonwealth Court judges may weigh in following the trial, before what both sides expect will be an appeal by the loser to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.


If the state prevails, Pennsylvania voters will be required for the first time to show an acceptable photo ID before they may cast ballots. If the court overturns the law, little will change at the polls. It remains unclear how soon the case may be resolved.


The plaintiffs’ lawyers – the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, and the Washington D.C. law firm of Arnold & Porter – have asked the court to bar enforcement of the law until the case has been fully resolved by the state’s high court, most likely after the Nov. 5 judicial and municipal elections.


“No one thinks this will be decided before the November election,” said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the law center.


The state’s legal team includes lawyers from the attorney general’s office, Gov. Tom Corbett’s Office of General Counsel and the private firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.


The law, approved by Republicans who control the Legislature and signed by a GOP governor, provoked a sharply partisan clash during last year’s presidential election campaign. Republicans touted it as shield against voter fraud while Democrats derided it as a poorly disguised attempt to discourage minorities, seniors and other Democratic-leaning voters from going to the polls.


A central issue in the court case has been the availability of alternative identification for people who lack a Pennsylvania driver’s license or other types of photo ID spelled out in the law.


The Department of State developed a special photo ID card available for free to voters with no other options, but lawyers for the plaintiffs say only about 17,000 have been issued so far. They contend that tens of thousands of voters, and possibly hundreds of thousands, lack valid credentials.


“The key here is we’re talking about a very large number of voters who would not be able to vote,” said ACLU lawyer Witold Walczak.


Spokesman Ron Ruman of the State Department said officials have done all they can to ensure voters can obtain a valid ID.


“We have made photo IDs for voting purposes liberally accessible,” he said. “If (voters) don’t have an ID now, it’s because they have decided not to get one.”


A planned pretrial conference Monday should answer some questions about the trial, including whether Judge Robert Simpson, who has presided over the case since the lawsuit was filed, will oversee the trial or hand off that responsibility to another jurist.


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