Pennsylvania voter ID law on hold for now and, maybe, for good

October 3, 2012

After hours of waiting and a bureaucratic runaround, Cheryl Ann Moore got her Pennsylvania voter ID card. Viviette Applewhite managed to get one, too, though being a plaintiff in the case against the state’s strict voting law probably helped earn a place at the front of the line.


People fill the waiting area of a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation office in Philadelphia as they wait to get a voter ID card, September 27, 2012.
REUTERS/Tom Mihalek

Frustrating a 93-year-old, World War II shipyard welder is hardly the best public relations move when you’re trying to justify roadblocks to the ballot. If both women had waited until Tuesday for Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson’s ruling, they need not have gone through the trouble. Then again, voting is too important to leave to political gamesmanship and the uncertainty of a court ruling.

 Because of Tuesday’s ruling, which applies only to the November election, poll workers can ask for photo ID but cannot turn away qualified voters without one. Simpson found that because the state had not made enough progress in issuing the IDs, it was likely that some legally registered voters would be disenfranchised. However, the law, approved by Republican legislators, is still valid after November pending future challenges.

 It’s a law its opponents judge as a barrier – not to voter fraud that Pennsylvania conceded does not exist, but to the rights of the poor, minorities, the elderly and disabled, those least likely to have an ID and most likely to vote Democratic. Similar laws have popped up in states across the country after the GOP wave of 2010 midterm elections. Registered voters without ready IDs – those who don’t buy a beer or board a plane, and there are plenty of those – must find an open office that issues them and pay fees to gather all necessary documents, if they exist. The laws are being challenged with increasing success as unconstitutional barriers.

 If this is a way democracy is supposed to work, I must have slept through U.S. history class. But it’s no surprise, considering that history, and the fight that every group of Americans has had to wage to be included. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discrimination at the ballot box, but not intimidation tactics designed to keep people from exercising that right. You can hear echoes of that time in the poll watching group True the Vote’s desire to make the experience of voting like “driving and seeing the police following you.” How charming.

 In Pennsylvania, the GOP helped make the case that such laws are political, when House majority leader, Mike Turzai, said to the Republican state committee that voter ID would “allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” an electoral battleground for President Obama and Mitt Romney.

 The reactions to Tuesday’s ruling continued the divide. The bill’s chief sponsor, GOP Representative Daryl Metcalfe, said: “This judicial activist decision is 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.”

 Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat, said: “This law was a bad solution looking for a non-existent problem, and we have other things to focus on — like making sure that people are registered to vote by October 9th.”

 As he told me before the ruling, Nutter said he didn’t want citizens to be confused or discouraged, which is still a problem when, as Simpson has ruled, poll workers are allowed to ask for photo ID even though it is not required. Will overzealous Election Day watchers press the point? Will frustrated voters give up?

 I hope not. Voters and the groups that protect their rights will need the energy after November, when — in Pennsylvania and states from South Carolina to Texas — the complicated battles over something very basic will pick up where they left off.

 Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.
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