Balancing voter ID law against voters’ rights

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HARRISBURG – Two weeks into the trial on the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s voter-identification law, both sides profess confidence that they will prevail. That’s probably a good indication that neither is really sure.


After nine days of testimony by state government bureaucrats, nationally known experts on statistics and communications and individual voters frustrated by the new photo ID requirement, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley put the trial on hold for a four-day weekend as lawyers prepare to sum up their cases in closing arguments anticipated next week.


The issue is where the line should be drawn between Pennsylvanians’ right to vote and the state’s interest in protecting the integrity of elections. So far, the debate has been largely hypothetical – the court has blocked enforcement of the March 2012 law since before the presidential election – but the trial verdict will be a major step toward deciding whether it is allowed to take effect.


The law would require all voters to show a Pennsylvania driver’s license or another acceptable photo ID with a current expiration date before they may cast ballots in an election. Voters who go to the polls without proper ID could only cast provisional ballots, which would be counted only if they provide local officials with an acceptable ID within six days after the election.


Political intrigue surrounds the trial because the law was approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature without a single Democratic vote and signed by Gov. Tom Corbett at a time other GOP-led states were tightening their voting requirements. Democrats insist the real goal was to discourage voting among older people, minorities and other Democratic-leaning groups.


Lawyers for the plaintiffs say they’ve built a strong, multifaceted case for overturning what would be one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws. And state lawyers have conceded that they are not aware of any cases of voter impersonation.


“There’s not only no compelling reason for this law, there’s no reason,” said Witold Walczak, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania who is on the plaintiffs’ legal team.


A major piece of the plaintiffs’ case is research by their statistical expert, who estimates “hundreds of thousands” of voters lack one of the three photo ID cards issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation or have IDs that will expire before the Nov. 5 municipal and judicial election. A statistician hired by the state to review that claim suggested that number is inflated but offered no estimate of his own.


Also, the plaintiffs have questioned the value of the special voting-only Pennsylvania Department of State IDs available for free to registered voters who lack other valid ID. They identified several dozen such voters who applied for the free card before last year’s election but received them only after the election or did not receive them at all. State officials responded that it is an unfair example because the law wasn’t being enforced and such cases would be expedited if it were being enforced.


A half-dozen voters, mostly older women who no longer drive and whose medical condition increasingly limits their mobility, testified for the plaintiffs in prerecorded videos,. They talked about the importance of voting, the pain of walking or even sitting, and their reluctance to impose on others for rides to, say, a distant PennDOT licensing center where they may have to wait in line for an ID photo.


Sometimes, 73-year-old Patricia Norton of Womelsdorf said in her video, “Pain really rules your life.”


In defending the law, the state’s legal team has relied largely on testimony from Corbett administration officials who helped shape the legislation as it moved through the Legislature and helped plug policy gaps once it was signed.


It’s up to the plaintiffs to prove that the law is unconstitutionally onerous.


D. Alicia Hickok, a Philadelphia lawyer on the state team, said it’s not the state’s responsibility to issue every voter an ID, but to ensure that every registered voter has the means to get an ID or an exemption that allows him or her to vote without one.


“I believe that that’s what’s been done and I think that’s what the record has demonstrated,” she said.


Whatever the verdict, this issue won’t fade away soon: both sides have vowed to appeal a loss to the state Supreme Court.


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