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HUGE Voting Rights Win: Pennsylvania's New Voter ID Law Suspended for Presidential Election

Some poll workers may be confused, but voters will cast ballots.
 
 
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The toughest provisions of Pennsylvania’s tough new voter ID law—requiring voters to present state-issued photo IDs to get a ballot—has been suspended for 2012’s presidential election, under an order by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson issued Tuesday.

The ruling is a major victory for voting rights advocates, who, led by the state’s ACLU chapter, showed the court that the state’s motor vehicle agency could not meet the public demand for new IDs before the 2012 election without disenfranchising voters.

“I question whether sufficient time now remains to attain the goal of liberal access,” Simpson wrote, referring to the agency’s readiness on providing the newly required photo IDs to registered voters, adding that “candid admissions by government officials” and “anecdotal evidence offered by Petitioners” -- activists who accompanied people trying to get the new IDs but couldn’t -- required him to suspend the law for the November election.

The ruling could still lead to confusion at the polls because it does not stop poll workers from asking voters for the new IDs. However, the legal landscape reverts to what it was before Pennsylvania's GOP-controlled Legislature passed Act 18, the voter ID law.

First-time voters will have to present an ID to get a ballot. Poll workers will accept state and federal government IDs, student ID, employee ID, gun permits, utility bills, bank statements or paychecks--as was the case before Act 18. Voters returning to the polls will simply sign the poll book by their name, with their signature acting as a legal oath of truthfulness under penalty of perjury.

Voting rights advocates celebrated the ruling. They had feared that up to 9 percent of the state’s more than 8 million registered voters might not have the newly required state-issued photo IDs, or could not present documentation—such as a birth certificate—at a state motor vehicle office to get one before November. That estimate of up to 750,000 voters came from state election officials, which is a different state agency than motor vehicles and not responsible for issuing the new IDs. Transportation officials kept downwardly revising their estimates of affected voters, saying recently that perhaps 100,000 voters could be affected.

The ruling is a major legal turnaround. Just weeks ago, Simpson issued an order upholding the new voter ID law. In that decision, he rejected the larger estimates of how many voters could be disenfranchised and said legislators were constitutionally entitled to pass whatever laws they wanted. Simpson’s ruling was speedily appealed to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which ordered Simpson to rehear the case and told him to pay closer attention to the impact of Act 18 on disenfranchising voters.

Simpson’s decision issued Tuesday does not throw out the law. It suspends those sections that might impede voting this fall based on not having the newly required state photo IDs. He said Act 18’s voter ID provisions would be revisited after the election in a full trial.

“I will begin planning for trial on a permanent injunction,” Simpson concluded, saying he was issuing a “preliminary injunction for purposes of the upcoming election.”

Simpson’s discussion of the evidence was not far from what he found when he upheld the law weeks ago. He did not believe that up to 9 percent of the state’s electorate could be stopped from voting in November. But he noted that the state’s Supreme Court ordered him to pay attention to what steps in the voting process could stop otherwise eligible voters from casting a ballot in November. With that standard before him, he issued a temporary restraining order that was not exactly black or white.

IPoll workers can ask for the new IDs, he said, but those who cannot present it will still be allowed to vote: newly registered voters will have to show other forms of ID; and returning voters will simply sign in. “I will not restrain election officials from asking for photo ID at the polls; rather, I will enjoin enforcement of those parts of Act 18 which directly result in disenfranchisement,” Simpson wrote.

Simpson also said the lack of the new state photo IDs could not be used to disqualify provisional ballots cast in November. These are ballots that are given to people who say they have registered but are not listed in precinct poll books. They are given a provisional ballot and are required to return to local election offices with proof of their identity in order for their vote to count. For November's presidential vote, election officials will accept the wider range of ID, as was previously state law. “I will enjoin enforcement of those provisions of Act 18 which amend the provisional ballot procedures of the Election Code,” he wrote.

Simpson’s ruling is not the end of the legal battle over the state’s new voter ID law. There would be a follow-up trial after the November election, he wrote, where legal observers already predict that the strict new voter ID law will be upheld because the state motor vehicle agency will have more time to implement it.

But there is no getting around that Simpson’s ruling is a major voting rights victory in a presidential election season. Presidential contests historically have the highest turnout of any election. Many registered voters but who don’t vote in other elections make last-minute decisions to vote. Civil rights groups were afraid that these voters would not be aware of newly restrictive voter ID standards—or other changes in procedures, including new polling place locations.

Simpson’s ruling clears away at least one major voting rights barrier for the November election in a state that been considered among the bottom tier of 2012’s presidential swing states.      

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).