Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Keystone stop: Pennsylvania blocks stricter voter ID

FOR NOW, at least, the arc of democracy in the state of Pennsylvania bends toward a fuller, more unfettered access to the voting booth, thanks to a Pennsylvania judge who today postponed full enforcement of the state's new strict voter photo ID requirement until after the election.

In a ruling that can only be characterized as a victory for voting rights advocates, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. ordered that voters without government-issued photo ID can still cast their ballots next month — settling, at least for now, an issue that’s roiled state and national politics since it was implemented in March.

In his opinion, Simpson said "the gap between the photo IDs issued and the estimated need will not be closed."

“I am not still convinced in my predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the Commonwealth’s implementation of a voter identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election,” the judge ruled. “Under these circumstances, I am obliged to enter a preliminary injunction.”

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“That's a huge win, because last week the judge was suggesting that he was going to have every [voter without ID] vote provisionally,” said Witold J. Walczak, an ACLU attorney in Pennsylvania, to The Huffington Post.

Simpson did rule to let the state continue its education and advertising campaign, which currently tells voters that IDs are required. But changes will be required to make that advertising dovetail with the ruling, underscoring the fact that no photo ID is required to vote on Nov. 6.

“This is a big win in that no one will be turned away on Election Day because they don’t have the new strict voter ID,” said Benjamin D. Geffen, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, to The New York Times. “The state has a large budget to spend on advertising this fact, and we want to make sure it does it.”

“You can't be telling people you need ID if you're not actually requiring ID,” Walczak told HuffPost. “That advertising has to be modified to reflect reality.”

In a statement, Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a sponsor of the voter ID bill, called Simpson’s ruling a “judicial activist decision” he said was “skewed in favor of the lazy who refuse to exercise the necessary work ethic to meet the commonsense requirements to obtain an acceptable photo ID.” Metcalfe said Simpson decided “to openly enable and fully embrace the ever-increasing entitlement mentality of those individuals who have no problem living off the fruits of their neighbors' labor.”

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IN HIS ruling, Simpson outlined three problems with the law: “First and foremost, the evidence is similar in kind to the prospective “assurances of government officials” testimony which the Supreme Court found an unsatisfactory basis for a “predictive judgment.”

“Second, the proposed changes are to occur about five weeks before the general election, and I question whether sufficient time now remains to attain the goal of liberal access.

“Third, the proposed changes are accompanied by candid admissions by government officials that any new deployment will reveal unforeseen problems which impede implementation. These admissions were corroborated by anecdotal evidence offered by Petitioners regarding the initial roll-out of ... IDs in August. For these reasons, I cannot conclude the proposed changes cure the deficiency in liberal access identified by the Supreme Court.”

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Simpson specifically targeted the state’s provisional ballot procedures, saying that “disenfranchisement expressly occurs during the provisional ballot part of the in-person voting process.”

Under the law Simpson just blocked, voters who voted with provisional ballots because they didn’t bring an ID to the polls had to show proof of identification by e-mail, fax, letter or in person, to a county voter registration office within six days of casting a ballot for their votes to count.

In his opinion, Simpson said “the duration of the current preliminary injunction is limited to the upcoming election.” He ordered that the Commonwealth Court would hold a conference with opposing counsel on Dec. 13, in Harrisburg, Pa., when the Court would meet with both sides to consider a schedule for consideration of a permanent injunction.

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SIMPSON’S OPINION pretty thoroughly explains his judicial rationale for deciding on the injunction against the voter ID law, but there were other factors that may have played a hand. The judge’s tabling of the voter ID law for the time being gave an implicit weight to questions asked recently by one of the state Supreme Court Justices.

In a hearing on voter ID last month, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Debra McCloskey Todd asked Assistant State Attorney General John Knorr. “What’s the rush? Would it be better if we had two years and not fifty-five days?”

“It would be better,” Knorr said.

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Simpson may have thought long and hard about that surprising concession by the state. The judge may have also considered the possible impact on other communities. In an August statement, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania recently supported a lawsuit to block the law, suggesting the scope of the voter ID law Simpson just quashed may have been more exclusionary than previously thought.

“Although much attention has been given to African American and Latino voters these laws may have an even greater affect on Asian American voters,” reads the groups’ statement. “Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law is being challenged on just that idea. Due to the diversity of language, foreign name structure and customs, voter rolls are frequently fraught with clerical errors that could cause legally registered voters to be turned away at the polls.”

Or maybe he just looked at something said on June 23 (and virally immortalized on YouTube) by Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai: “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”

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PROPONENTS of tighter voter ID did the spin thing. "Today's ruling is a temporary setback," Horace Cooper, director of the National Center for Public Policy Research's Voter Identification Task Force told CNN.

"Notably, the court's ruling accepts the principle that the voter ID rules are legal. Unfortunately, the timing of the change meant that Pennsylvanians will have to wait one more election cycle before they can be sure their elections are fraud-free," Cooper said.

But never mind Cooper’s “fraud-free” cheap shot, which flies in the face of abundant evidence that voter fraud is almost nonexistent. Ari Berman of The Nation reported on Sept. 13 that some of the state’s Supreme Court Justices remarked at a recent hearing that the Pennsylvania Bar Association suggested the voter ID law be put in place over the span of two federal election cycles.

What’s the rush, Mr. Cooper?

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While Simpson’s ruling almost certainly faces an appeal, today’s ruling has an impact beyond the ruling itself. This decision in the Keystone State — with 20 electoral votes, it may be pivotal to the election’s outcome next month — sends a wider message.

Along with other recent decisions, the Pennsylvania ruling helps to cement the idea of a trend in the minds of voters, the idea that, for whatever theoretical value there may be in enacting new voter ID laws or tightening old ones, the relative absence of voter fraud undercuts much of their reason for being — as well as the need for those laws going into effect now, with a presidential election little more than a month away.

“We’re starting to turn the tide,” NAACP President Ben Jealous said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” earlier today. “We’ve won in Wisconsin, we’ve won in Texas … folks are starting to come to their senses and see that this isn’t a Republican thing, it’s an extremist thing … this is going back to a playbook that was written right after the Civil War.”

Image credits: Simpson: via Philly.com. Turzai: via youtube.

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