WASHINGTON — 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 measure 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 enable them to vote.
Judge Robert Simpson, who held a trial on the issue, said that he was not convinced the photo ID rule would prove an insurmountable barrier and that 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 said. The judge, who was elected as a Republican, said he was convinced that the state would implement the law "in a non-partisan and even-handed manner."
His opinion relied heavily on aU.S. Supreme Courtruling that upheld a similar photo ID law in Indiana four years ago. But the Pennsylvania case differed because the challengers brought forth plaintiffs who were longtime voters and who said they were unable to obtain the proper ID required for voting.
The lead plaintiff, 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite, said she had voted in every presidential race since the days ofFranklin D. Roosevelt. She has several ID cards, including some with a photo, but she does not have a driver's license or a valid passport. Her polling place is next to her apartment building.
State officials say she could obtain a valid ID card if she brought her birth certificate, a Social Security card and a proof of residence to an office of the state Department of Transportation.
Before the trial, the state's lawyers conceded they were "not aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania" and agreed it was not "likely to occur in November of 2012" even if the law were put on hold.
The two sides differed greatly on the potential effects of the law. In March, Republican leaders estimated about 1% of Pennsylvania's voters, or about 90,000 people, lacked the required ID cards. But in July, the state reported that about 9%, or more than 758,000 people, did not have a valid ID issued by the transportation agency. In heavily Democratic Philadelphia, 18% of registered voters did not have a current state driver's license, according to the state's data.
Penda Hair, co-director of the public policy group Advancement Project, called the decision "a huge setback for the right to vote. It's contrary to core American values and sadly takes us back to a dark place in our country's history."
The challengers said they would appeal, but they face an uphill fight. The state Supreme Court is equally divided between Republican and Democratic judges, and a tie vote would affirm the trial judge's ruling.
And because the case was litigated on state law grounds, the losing side is unlikely to seek an appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court.