A Pennsylvania judge ruled Wednesday that a new Republican-supported state voter ID law could be implemented for Election Day, despite objections that it was a partisan attempt to hurt President Obama and could cost thousands of voters the right to cast ballots.
Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson said the individuals and civil rights groups challenging the law had not met the heavy burden of proving that it so clearly violated the state constitution that it should not be implemented. He said there was still time for those without proper ID to acquire it.
âPetitioners did not establish .â.â. that disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable,â Simpson wrote, adding, âI was convinced that Act 18 will be implemented by Commonwealth agencies in a nonpartisan, evenhanded manner.â
The detailed, 70-page opinion by Simpson, a veteran of the bench who is a Republican, makes it much more likely that Pennsylvania voters will now be required to show specific forms of photo ID. It is one of many new restrictive voting laws across the country â" in almost all cases, sponsored by Republicans and opposed by Democrats.
The decision will quickly be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That court is currently operating with only six members, because one of its justices is suspended. A tie vote would uphold Simpsonâs ruling.
Although their decisions do not always follow partisan lines, the six elected justices are equally divided between Democrats and Republicans.
The battle in Harrisburg is just one of dozens being waged in courtrooms in Washington and across the country involving new voting laws. The Justice Department has objected to laws in several states â" Texas, South Carolina and Florida, among them â" covered by a federal requirement that changes in their voting laws require advance approval from federal authorities or the courts.
Pennsylvania acknowledged that it would not attempt to prove that voter impersonation fraudâ"the kind that would be stopped by photo ID lawsâ"had occurred in the commonwealth, or that it was likely to occur in the coming election without the law.
But it said requiring ID was a rational decision by the legislature to protect the voting process and had such a right under the state constitution.
The opponents said that even in a modern world where photo ID is requested on a daily basis for routine government exchanges, there were hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who had voted all their lives but lacked the specific kind of photo ID or documents required to get an ID.
Simpson was skeptical of the challengersâ estimates. He said he believed that more than 1 percent of the commonwealthâs more than 8 million voters lacked the required ID, but less than the 9 percent figure that opponents of the law submitted.
He credited pledges by the secretary of state to streamline the process for requesting ID. With the availability of absentee voting and accepting votes on a provisional basis, Simpson said he was not convinced that any of the petitioners âwill not have their votes counted in the general election.â
While the challenge was brought under the state constitution, Simpsonâs opinion was heavily influenced by the U.S. Supreme Courtâs 2008 decision that seemed to give states the green light to require voters to present photo IDs. In the courtâs lead opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens, now retired, said that such a law in Indiana was a reasonable reaction to the threat of voter fraud, âamply justified by the valid interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process.â
Simpson said he considered complaints that the law was motivated by partisan interests, noting what he called the âdisturbing, tendentious statementsâ by state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R).
Turzai listed the law as an accomplishment at a meeting of GOP activists, saying âVoter ID â" which is going to allow governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania â" done.â
Simpson said there was no proof that other lawmakers shared Turzaiâs âboastfulâ view. Even if there were partisan motivations, Simpson said, the Supreme Courtâs decision in the Indiana case said that a nondiscriminatory law with should not be invalidated simply because some individual legislators had partisan motivations.