A Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday ordered state officials not to enforce the commonwealth’s tough new voter-ID law in the November election, a political victory for Democrats who say the measure is an attempt to discourage support for President Obama in a battleground state.
Pennsylvania has occupied a particularly important spot in what has become a series of partisan skirmishes over new laws on who will be allowed to vote this fall and how their votes will be counted.
With five weeks until the election, voters around the country face new requirements when they go to the polls, and some have more limited opportunities to vote before Election Day.
But those opposed to the changes have won key victories in the courts, where judges have had to balance a state’s traditional right to make rules for the electoral process with citizens’ fundamental right to vote.
A panel of federal judges blocked a new law in Texas, saying the state had not proved that the changes would not disproportionately harm minorities. State judges in Wisconsin stopped the statute there. South Carolina’s measure is under federal judicial review, with little time for implementation even if it is approved.
Pennsylvania is emblematic of the partisan dynamic that has motivated the changes.
As in many other states, a resurgent Republican leadership elected in 2010 moved quickly to enact one of the toughest ID laws, which required specific forms of photo identification that many residents — the number is disputed — lack. Lawmakers and new Republican Gov. Tom Corbett say the changes are necessary to combat voter fraud and restore confidence in the integrity of elections.
Democrats and civil rights groups say there is almost no evidence of the kind of voter-impersonation fraud that ID requirements would remedy. They allege that the real purpose of such laws is to suppress turnout of poor, urban and minority voters, who are the most likely to lack photo IDs.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who upheld Pennsylvania’s law when he first considered it this summer, ruled Tuesday that state officials had not made enough progress in supplying photo IDs for those who lack them. He said it seemed likely that some otherwise qualified voters would be disenfranchised.
Simpson said elections officials may request that voters show a photo ID, but they may not turn away qualified voters who had not been able to obtain them, nor require the voters to cast provisional ballots.
State officials said they had not decided whether to appeal Simpson’s ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But a joint statement from Corbett and his secretary of state made it sound as if they were preparing to give up the fight to use the law in the coming election.
The Pennsylvania statute has drawn particular attention because of its strictness: Only certain types of ID are accepted, and critics say the process for securing them is unwieldy and for some, almost impossible.
The partisan bickering over the measure ratcheted up this summer when a video surfaced of Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R) bragging about the law at a meeting of GOP activists.
“Voter ID — which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done,” he said.
The state is considered crucial to the presidential contest, although recent polls have shown Obama opening up a lead over Republican Mitt Romney.
Simpson, elected to the bench as a Republican, noted Turzai’s remarks when he considered the law this summer but found that the requirement was not unduly intrusive.
A 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.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, composed of three Democrats and three Republicans, agreed that the law might be constitutional. But it told Simpson to gather more information about whether the state could meet its goal of providing IDs so that no voter would be disenfranchised.
Simpson decided Tuesday that the state could not. “I expected more photo IDs to have been issued by this time,” he wrote. “For this reason, I accept Petitioners’ argument that in the remaining five weeks before the general election, the gap between the photo IDs issued and the estimated need will not be closed.”
There will be additional hearings after the election to consider the larger question of the law’s constitutionality.
David Gersch, a Washington lawyer who represented the individuals and civil rights groups that challenged the law, called the decision “a big win” that can be reduced to a simple message: “You don’t need a photo ID to vote in November.”
His partner in the case, Witold Walczak of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said it is a message that the state must now adopt. Its current voter-education efforts are called “Show It” and tell voters that they must have an ID. Walczak said that could lead to confusion on Election Day or discourage turnout among those lacking an ID.
Ronald Rumen, a spokesman for Secretary of State Carol Aichele, said the state is looking at the radio and TV campaign and is likely to make tweaks to reflect Simpson’s decision.
Cases around the country have shown that how voter-ID laws are written — and the exceptions provided for those without ID — are important. For instance, while the Obama administration opposed the laws in Texas and South Carolina, it approved such measures in New Hampshire and Virginia. Virginia’s law closed a provision that had allowed residents to vote without showing identification but also expanded the types of ID accepted.
The legal wrangling in battleground states goes beyond voter-ID laws. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit is considering two challenges to Ohio statutes, one limiting early voting and the other regarding the counting of provisional ballots. Groups in Florida are fighting efforts by Gov. Rick Scott (R) to scour the voting rolls for noncitizens; the groups say there is a risk that qualified voters will lose their rights in a hasty process so close to the election.