A similar strategy has succeeded in Missouri and Wisconsin, where judges have relied on voting rights protections enshrined in state constitutions to block laws that require voters to present photo identification.
Voting rights advocates are scrambling to fight a rush of legislation adopted over the past two years that, among other changes, curtail the availability of early voting and impose new requirements on voter-registration efforts.
Most attention has been focused on requirements that voters show photo identification, a measure that strikes many people as a common-sense notion that voters prove they are who they say they are. Many states require some method of identification, but 10, including Pennsylvania, have passed laws requiring specific kinds of government-issued IDs.
“The integrity of the electoral process is not enhanced by turning away people at the ballot box,” said David Gersch, an attorney for 10 individuals and three groups, including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. “Voting is not a privilege. It’s a right.”
Although the court battles are waged in lawyers’ words, the partisan import of the laws is impossible to ignore. President Obama’s supporters argue that the legislation could cause serious harm to his reelection campaign. And all but one of the new measures have come in states with Republican-led legislatures. Democratic governors have vetoed some changes.
Lawyers challenging the Pennsylvania law asked Simpson to note that state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R) listed the law as an accomplishment at a meeting of GOP activists.
“Voter ID — which is going to allow governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done,” he said.
Sponsors say the laws are needed to combat voter fraud and assure the public that only qualified voters’ ballots will be counted. In opening arguments Wednesday, Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley told Simpson that “widespread disenfranchisement will not happen” and that “nothing could be more rational” than requiring a voter to show a photo ID.
But evidence of the kind of voting fraud the laws would discourage is elusive. Pennsylvania stipulated before the trial that it could not show evidence of such fraud in the past and that it is unlikely to occur in the absence of the law.
Opponents say the laws disproportionately affect minorities, the poor and the elderly, who even in a modern world sometimes lack photo identification and the legal documents and means that would allow them to obtain it.