The battle in Harrisburg is one of dozens being waged in courtrooms in Washington and across the country involving new voting laws. The Justice Department has objected to statutes in several states, including Texas, South Carolina and Florida, where changes in voting laws must be approved by federal authorities or the courts.
Cases of voter impersonation fraud — the kind that would be stopped by photo ID laws — are exceedingly rare. Pennsylvania acknowledged that such fraud had not occurred in the commonwealth, nor was it likely to occur in the coming election, even without the law.
But the state said that requiring ID is a rational way to protect the voting process and that the legislature had that right under the state constitution.
The law’s opponents said hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have voted all their lives nevertheless lack the specific kind of photo ID now required to vote, as well as the documents they need to get such an ID.
Simpson was skeptical of the challengers’ estimates. He said he believed that more than 1 percent of the state’s more than 8 million voters lack the required ID, but he did not accept the opponents’ estimate of 9 percent.
He cited pledges by the secretary of state to streamline the process for requesting IDs. With the availability of absentee voting and the acceptance of votes on a provisional basis, Simpson said, he was not convinced that any of the petitioners “will not have their votes counted in the general election.”
The law allows voters who lack the required ID to cast a provisional ballot; their vote would be counted if they could later provide the needed identification.
While the challenge was brought under the state constitution, Simpson’s opinion was heavily influenced by a 2008 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that seemed to give states the green light to require voters to present photo IDs. In the court’s 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, “amply justified by the valid interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process.”
Simpson said he considered complaints that Pennsylvania’s law was motivated by partisan interests, noting what he called the “disturbing, tendentious statements” by state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R).
Turzai listed the law as an accomplishment at a meeting of GOP activists, saying, “Voter ID — which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
But Simpson said there was no proof that other lawmakers shared Turzai’s “boastful” view. Even if there were partisan motivations, the judge said, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Indiana case held that a nondiscriminatory law should not be invalidated simply because some legislators had partisan motivations.