Hoping to Vote, Say Cheese

Hoping to Vote?  Say Cheese!

PA's new voter ID law faces its first court challenge this week.  The law's major requirement, that every voter must have photo identification, has been called by many on the left a "modern-day poll tax" while those on the right consider it a perfectly rational step in today's society.  With Pennsylvania expected to play a major part in this November's election, the law is the subject of much debate over voting rights, both here in Pennsylvania, and Nationally, as well.

The law was originally passed as a measure to prevent against voter fraud, however, that issue has been taken off the table.  Earlier this month, the defendant in the case, the state of Pennsylvania, signed a stipulation agreement, conceding that no evidence existed of prior in-person voter fraud, or even that there exited any reason to believe that such crimes would occur with more frequency if the law wasn't in effect.  The agreement states that Pennsylvania "will not offer any evidence in this action that in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania and elsewhere . . . or evidence that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absence of the Photo ID law."

This concession by the State has made the key question in the case the level of scrutiny that the court will apply.  The case was filed by several public interest groups, including the ACLU, seeking an injunction from the effect of the law on behalf of plaintiffs who argue that they will not be able to vote in November's presidential election because they will not be able to produce the required paperwork in order to get an ID that complies with Pennsylvania's law.

In response, the Pennsylvania Department of State announced a program to help provide photographic voter IDs to Pennsylvanians who can produce a Social Security number and two proofs of address.  The program will not be available until the end of August and will only operate up until the November election.  Attorney for the Plaintiffs, David Gersch, argued that allowing the promise of that program to bar injunction would set a dangerous precedent.  In his opening remarks, he stated, "There is a line of cases that say you can't avoid an injunction by saying, in the future, you'll make it better."

Regardless of how the case turns, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson has acknowledged that he is basically just setting the stage for a challenge to the State Supreme Court.  Judge Simpson has stated that he hopes to have a decision by the week of August 3rd.

This case is significant in that it represents the first occasion where both the issue of voter ID fraud has been taken off the table and the Plaintiffs have been able to show that they would have voted in November's election, but for the law.  That issue was of significance in the Seventh Circuit's ruling in an earlier challenge to Indiana's voter ID law.  That challenge failed, largely because the Plaintiffs were unable to show that they would in-fact be harmed by Indiana's law.

The Brennan Center for Justice recently issued a report finding that a large variety of factors could seriously hamper the ability of over 1 million Americans in the 10 states that have passed voter ID laws to obtain the required documents they would need to cast votes in November's election.  For example, as stated in the report:

More than 1 million eligible voters in these states fall below the federal poverty line and live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week. These voters may be particularly affected by the significant costs of the documentation required to obtain a photo ID. Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax -- outlawed during the civil rights era -- cost $10.64 in current dollars.

The effects of such voter ID laws seem pretty clear: the laws make it harder for hundreds of thousands of poor Americans to vote and they place a serious burden on basic constitutional rights that have been affirmed and buttressed with supporting case law for over one-hundred years.