A state judge has refused to block a new Pennsylvania law that requires voters to display a current government-issued photo identification at the polls, upholding a Republican-backed law that Democrats say may prevent tens of thousands of low-income and elderly voters from casting ballots.
The decision is a setback for voting-rights advocates, who sued on behalf of a dozen, mostly elderly voters who do not drive and do not have an ID card that will allow them to vote.
But Judge Robert Simpson, who held a trial on the issue, said he was not convinced the photo ID rule will prove an insurmountable barrier for many voters, and he said he was reluctant to strike down a law passed by the Legislature.
He also said the state was taking steps this summer to help voters obtain the required identification.
“I am not convinced any qualified elector need be disfranchised by Act 18,” he wrote, citing the law's legislative title. Voters who cannot obtain a photo ID may be able to cast an absentee or provisional ballot, he added.
Simpson’s opinion relied heavily on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a similar photo ID law in Indiana four years ago.
But the Pennsylvania case differed because the challengers brought forth actual plaintiffs who were long-time voters and who said they were unable to obtain the proper ID required for voting.
The state’s lawyers conceded they were “not aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania” and did not think it was “likely to occur in November of 2012” even if the law were put on hold.
The two sides differed greatly on the potential consequences of the law. Republican officials estimated that about 1% of Pennsylvania’s voters — or about 90,000 persons — lacked the required ID cards. But in July, the state’s Department of Transportation said that about 758,000 registered voters did not have a valid driver’s license that would allow them to vote. In heavily Democratic Philadelphia, 18% of registered voters did not have a valid state driver’s license.
Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, called the decision “a huge setback for the right to vote. It’s contrary to core American values and sadly takes up back to a dark place in our country’s history.”
The lawyers who brought the legal challenge said they would appeal, but they face an uphill fight. The state Supreme Court is currently equally divided between Republican and Democratic judges, and it is not seen as likely to overturn the trial judge’s conclusion.
And because the case was litigated on state law grounds, the losing side is not likely to seek an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.