Huge: Pennsylvania Activists May Be On Verge Of Winning Voter ID Fight

A lower court judge appears to be seeking a compromise for the presidential election.

Voting rights activists may be close to winning one of the year’s biggest voter ID fights.

The Pennsylvania state judge rehearing a challenge to that state’s strict new Republican-sponsored voter ID law ended his hearings on Tuesday by asking attorneys for both sides to return to court on Thursday with proposals for a “tailored injunction” that balances an eligible voter’s rights to cast a ballot and the state’s right to regulate elections.

Commonwealth court judge Robert Simpson told voting rights lawyers led by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and state officials he had to consider suspending the new voter ID law for this November’s presidential election, because the state agency responsible for implementing the law has not yet done so in a manner that does not harm voters.

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“I think it's possible there could be an injunction entered here,” Simpson said Tuesday. “I need some input from people who have been thinking about this longer than I have.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered Simpson to rehear the voter ID case after the Republican judge issued a controversial ruling that upheld the legislature’s right to pass voter ID legislation and dismissing voting rights activists concerns that hundreds of thousands of state residents—mostly low-income people, students and others who lacked state drivers licenses—would effectively be disenfranchised in the presidential election. 

Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law requires all voters present a state-issued photo ID card that has not expired in order to receive a ballot. During the summer, state election officials have estimated that upwards of half a million people lacked the ID, notably lower-income people and students who did not drive and lived in the state’s cities. As litigation proceeded, they repeatedly sought to lower those estimates.

All summer—including once again on Monday—the state motor vehicle agency, which is tasked with providing the new state ID cards, updated its procedures surrounding issuing the IDs. In the meanwhile, voting rights activists have accompanied people seeking the new IDs into PennDOT offices and documented numerous instances of state workers turning people away or failing to provide the IDs.

Judge Simpson was slated to hear from a dozen witnesses on Thursday, said Sara Mullen, ACLU Pennsylvania associate director, as well as review the requested “tailored injunctions.” She did not expect Simpson to throw out the law, but to create temporary ground rules that upheld the rights of registered voters who lacked the photo ID—relieving PennDOT of having to implement the law as the 2012 election nears.  

“Part of the problem was the states changed the procedures again, yesterday at 4:58pm,” she said. “We have already printed three different voter guides [for 2012] and now will have to do another. This makes it it insane about how to educate people about the law.”

For more details on the case and Tuesday's day in court, here's Mullen's latest blog.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).