Pennsylvania Supreme Court punts voter ID law back to lower court

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court yesterday ordered a lower court to review its decision not to stop a controversial voter identification law from taking effect in light of the state’s glaring failure to properly implement the law, which could potentially exclude hundreds of thousands of registered voters from casting their ballots on Election Day. 

Pennsylvania’s voter ID law – known as Act 18 or House Bill 934 – will require all citizens to present a valid, state-issued photo ID to exercise their right to vote in November.

The voter ID law was allowed to stand last month after Superior Judge Robert Simpson predicted that voter disenfranchisement was not “imminent or inevitable” because he was “convinced” that state agencies will be able to fully comply with the law’s mandate to provide prospective voters with valid photo IDs – free of charge –  in time for the 2012 general election.

Read more: PA voter ID law survives first court battle

However, when the case was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, state officials admitted that they are not implementing the voter ID law “according to its terms”. Pennsylvania state officials also conceded that “qualified members of the voting public will be disenfranchised in the upcoming General Election” because state agencies are applying more onerous standards than what the law requires.

Specifically, PennDOT has opted to vet applicants for the free photo IDs using – what state officials concede is – a “rigorous” identification process instead of the less burdensome method mandated under Act 18.

PennDOT has refused to comply with the voter ID law “as written” because the driver’s license that it issues is “a secure form of identification, which may be used, for example, to board commercial aircraft.”

As a result, the Pennsylvania Department of State has been scrambling to figure out a way to issue alternate DOS photo ID cards through PennDOT license centers with less than 7 weeks left before the general election.

Even so, the Supreme Court pointed out that applicants for the alternate Department of State ID cards are still being vetted through the same “rigorous” process used for PennDOT driver’s license, which means neither state agencies are in compliance with the Act 18’s requirements to provide maximum (or least burdensome) access for voters to obtain free photo IDs.

The Supreme Court found there is a “disconnect between what the Law prescribes and how it is implemented.” But instead of granting a preliminary injunction to stop the voter ID law from being enforced in November, Supreme Court simply ordered the lower court to assess the “actual availability” of the alternate Department of State photo ID cards and determine whether the state’s new remedies are enough to prevent the voter disenfranchisement.

In their dissenting opinions, Justice Debra McCloskey Todd and Justice Seamus P. Caffery argued that the Supreme Court should stop the voter ID law from taking effect given the “ample evidence” showing that a “substantial number of eligible, qualified registered voters” will be blocked from casting their ballots in November’s election as a result of Act 18.

“The Commonwealth’s activities in this regard are a tacit admission that Act 18 is simply not ready for the prime time of the Nov. 6, 2012 election,” wrote Justice Caffery. “Where a fundamental constitutional right is at issue – arguable the fundamental right – an implementation of even a lesser burden on the exercise of that right, ten weeks before it is to be exercised, is simply unreasonable and constitutionally insupportable.”

Read more: Pennsylvania’s voter ID law under scrutiny

Act 18/House Bill 934 was approved by the Republican-dominated state legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett ostensibly to prevent voter fraud. However, state officials admitted in court documents that there have not been “any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania” nor do they have any evidence that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November.

Pennsylvania holds 20 electoral votes and could be one of the swing states up for grabs in the Presidential election. Earlier this summer, Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Mike Turzai bragged that the voter ID law is “gonna allow Governor [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania”.

Quotes from Justice Debra McCloskey Todd’s dissenting opinion

“There is ample evidence of disarray in the record…The stated underpinnings of Act 18 – election integrity and voter confidence – are undermined, not advanced, by this Court’s chosen course.”

“This Court has chosen to punt rather than to act…The lower court indeed abused its discretion in failing to find that irreparable harm of constitutional magnitude – the disenfranchisement of a substantial number of eligible, qualified registered voters, many of whom have been proudly voting for decades.”

Quotes from Justice Seamus P. Caffery’s dissenting opinion:

“The Commonwealth offered no evidence below of the existence of in-person voter fraud in this state or that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in the upcoming election.”

“The Commonwealth’s interest in the implementation of this law, at least as concern the November election, is somewhere from slight to symbolic.”

“There was no known evidence of in-person voter fraud, and that Act 18 was not genuinely needed to combat in-person voter fraud in the November election.”

“It is clear to me that the reason for the urgency of implementing Act 18 prior to the November 2012 election is purely political.”


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One Comment on “Pennsylvania Supreme Court punts voter ID law back to lower court

  1. Pingback: Pennsylvania judge blocks enforcement of voter ID law for November's general election | What The Folly?!

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