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Fri04182014

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In Pennsylvania, photo-ID law routed back to lower court

J B Dianis

In a relatively speedy finding, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court announced on Tuesday (Sept. 18) that it is sending the decision on the state's controversial photo-ID law back to the lower court for a decision.

The Supreme Court, which had only concluded its hearings on the law late last week, emphasized that the lower court must heavily weigh the likelihood of whether the law would prevent registered voters who lack a photo ID from being eligible to vote in the November 6th presidential election.

"We're glad to see that (the) Pennsylvania Supreme Court is taking the actual impact on voters seriously," said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis.

"Requiring the state to prove the law will not disenfranchise voters is the right step to take. The reports from Pennsylvania already include long lines at the PennDOT (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation) offices, confusion and untrained workers giving out misinformation."

That PennDOT staff would not be adequately trained to meet the volume of public inquiries, or that its bureaucracy would be incapable of issuing the number of photo IDs required, have been ongoing concerns of state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Harrisburg). For one, he has explained that PennDOT staff are not well versed with election laws, which are distinctly different and more complex than the criteria for simply obtaining a driver's license. However, staff training aside, Hughes, the Democratic Appropriations Chair, contends that the state simply has not allocated enough revenue to cover the costs of generating the necessary number of photo IDs.

By the state's own estimates, even if it eliminated the approximately 100,000 registered voters it has deemed inactive from its calculations, approximately 600,000 photo-IDs would have to be produced should the registered voters who do not have one made the request. Those numbers do not include eligible voters who may yet register before the state's October 9 deadline. Hughes said that, the last time he checked, the number of newly issued photo IDs was only in the hundreds. He said he therefore took some comfort that the Supreme Court asked, "What's the rush? Why are we trying to get this done by November 6th?"

When lower court Judge Robert Simpson issued his decision in August to the let the voter ID law stand, he received withering criticism from voting rights advocacy organizations, including the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice. His decision was disparaged for, among other reasons, being divorced from the practical reality of how the state could meet its obligation to issue the number of IDs required.

While other states – Tennessee included – have enacted voter-ID laws, the initiative in Pennsylvania became highly politicized when its Republican House Majority Leader, Michael Turzai, was videotaped in a private meeting claiming that the law's passage would allow Mitt Romney, his party's presidential candidate, to take Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes. Turzai's boast was presumably based on his assessment that the youth and minority vote that helped deliver the state to then-2008 Democratic Party candidate Sen. Barack Obama, will be effectively reduced in this year's election.

Regardless of the lower court's impending decision, both sides have indicated they will likely appeal once again to the Supreme Court for an expedited verdict that will clearly spell out the rules for all voters before election day.

Nevertheless, Hughes conceded, regardless of whether the Supreme Court again strikes down the law, that the Republican strategy to disrupt the status quo has, to a degree, been successful. Though public outrage at the law has generated an animated debate within the state and elsewhere, Hughes said his office has had to contend with the voter ID law at a time when it typically focuses solely on voter registration.

"Normally, we'd be spending all our time, energy and resources on voter registration, but we've had to develop a dual program to deal with voter ID and registration," Hughes said of the protracted battle. "It's been a huge distraction."

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