Pennsylvania Voters: Dazed and Confused

This is going to sound crazy, but in Philadelphia, plenty of voting-rights activists are hoping plaintiffs lose their case against the state voter-ID law—at the lower court level, that is. Pennsylvania's voter-ID law, one of the most restrictive in the country, requires a government-issued photo ID in order to vote, and would disenfranchise a significant number of voters, particularly those who are poor, elderly, and nonwhite. It's a scary prospect, and the lawsuit brought by several voting-rights groups on behalf of ten plaintiffs seeks to get the law suspended. Closing arguments ended yesterday, and Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson has promised to rule on the measure by August 13.

So why would any voting-rights activist hope that Simpson rules in favor of the state? Because if Simpson decides to grant an injunction, it will complicate the message of voting-rights activists who are urging people to get the new ID. Some worry that if the headlines say the lack is struck down, they won't go through the process to get the identification. But the state Supreme Court could then reverse the decision. With just a couple of months before the election, voters will be caught unprepared.

Whichever side loses will undoubtedly appeal to the state Supreme Court, where the outcome is unpredictable. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court normally has seven members, but one is suspended while she faces corruption charges. That leaves the Court with an even number of justices—three Democrats and three Republicans.  

On the ground, particularly in Philadelphia, activists have focused on helping to get voters some form of valid identification. That's no easy business—hundreds of thousands in the city need one. These organizers and activists are trying to spread the word that the law is in effect. Since it wasn't passed until March of this year, one political scientist—a witness for the plaintiffs in the voter ID case—said a third of state's residents don't know about the new requirement. The state has done little to help people get the necessary identification, so the Pennsylvania Voter-ID Coalition, with more than 140 member-groups, has taken up the task. They're canvassing neighborhoods, conducting workshops and clinics, and putting up posters to tell people they must get a photo ID to vote.

Time is short—only three months until the election. You need a birth certificate, a Social Security card, and two proofs of address to get a state-issued ID, and for anyone who doesn't have easy access to the documents or whose case is complicated by name changes, that's a small window of time. A court decision knocking down the law might lead people to delay getting their ID. Many hope Simpson allows the law to stand and then the state Supreme Court, which has the final word, knocks it down.

Of course, it's not that simple. In the unusual case that the Supreme Court splits evenly on the issue, the lower court decision would stand, meaning there's also good reason to hope Simpson sides with the plaintiffs.

The case largely boils down to how judges read the state constitution's guarantee of the right to vote. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Indiana's voter-ID law, saying it does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The voting-rights lawyers argued that the state's right to vote is broader than the national right, and does not allow as many barriers. They've demonstrated that a huge number of voters—some estimates top one million—could be affected and the state has few plans to alleviate the situation. They've also shown that the state greatly underestimated the number of people without IDs. According to this argument, the case boils down to whether there's a need for this law—in other words, whether voter fraud is a problem. Meanwhile, state attorneys never even ventured into such territory, acknowledging that there were no known cases of voter fraud in the state. Instead, they argued that the state has the right to implement this law because the state regulates elections. 

The fight for voting rights will happen on two fronts, with some groups pushing to get the law struck down and while others seek to get IDs to as many people as possible. While they're not at odds, the outcome of the court case will have a major impact on getting the word out.


Pennsylvania is the strongest legal challenge to Voter ID laws. Fortunately (for us) Obama has a nice margin there and Voter ID probably won't accomplish it's Republican goal. At least at the top of the ticket. For the rest of the candidates, there is still plenty to worry about.

Keep in mind the constitutional aspect of this issue. On the one hand, there is an explicit amendment outlawing poll taxes. Previous incarnations of the Supreme Court have decided that the Constitution protects not only the explicit rights it mentions, but also rights in the "penumbra" such as privacy. It should be obvious that requiring a trip to the DMV before allowing a voter to cast a ballot is in the penumbra of a poll tax.

On the other hand, the present court has explicitly upheld Voter ID laws, arguing that the "government" has a legitimate interest in identifying voters. The only consistency this court displays is repeatedly taking rights away from the general public and transferring them to rich, privileged elites.

Those of us who advocate a new amendment to overturn Citizens United should keep in mind how the Supreme Court treats the poll tax amendment.

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