Pennsylvania, a crucial battleground in this year’s presidential election, is also the front line of a bitter split between many Democrats and Republicans over voting rights. Supporters of recent laws passed by several Republican legislatures requiring voters to show IDs say the measures protect the integrity of the electoral process by making sure only qualified voters cast ballots.
Democrats and minority groups counter that the restrictions are likely to disenfranchise voters — often minorities, the poor and elderly, those who live in urban areas and others who may not have the type of photo ID required.
In Pennsylvania, the voter ID requirement is a “reasonable, non-discriminatory, non-severe burden when viewed in the broader context of the widespread use of photo ID in daily life,” Simpson wrote in his opinion. “The Commonwealth’s asserted interest in protecting public confidence in elections is a relevant and legitimate state interest sufficiently weighty to justify the burden.”
The detailed 70-page opinion by Simpson, a veteran of the bench and a Republican, shows the difficulty of challenging such laws before they take effect. He said the challengers, including several elderly voters who said they lack the specific documents required by Pennsylvania’s law, did an excellent job of “putting a face” on those burdened by the measure.
But he said that unless it can be clearly shown that the requirements violate the state constitution by denying voters’ rights, he is obliged to uphold the law passed by the legislature.
The case will be immediately appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine, said that although he disagrees with Simpson’s opinion and voter ID laws in general, he found the ruling well-reasoned and nonpartisan, and he predicted that it will be difficult to overturn.
The elected state Supreme Court is operating with only six members because one justice is suspended. A tie vote would uphold Simpson’s ruling. Although their decisions do not always follow partisan lines, the remaining justices are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, one of the organizations challenging the law, called the ruling “a backwards move” for voters. “This requires hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters who lack the specific government-issued photo ID to jump through burdensome hoops to exercise their most basic legal right,” she said. “Many will not be able to vote at all.”