Pa. Supreme Court Orders Lower Court to Reconsider Rigid Voter ID Law

September 18, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

Pennsylvania’s top court has ordered a lower court judge to reconsider whether a preliminary injunction should be entered against the state’s ridiculously rigid voter ID law. Pennsylvania’s voter ID law signed into law by the state’s Republican governor creates significant hurdles for people to vote, especially for some of the state’s most vulnerable. Other states, mostly controlled by conservative policymakers, have also pushed through stringent voter ID requirements.

In August, a state judge dismissed arguments that the new law, enacted “along purely partisan lines,” as the Philadelphia Inquirer puts it, would hinder the ability of minorities, students, low-income people and the elderly to vote in the forthcoming general election. (A report by The Brennan Center for Justice, which examined the Pa. voter ID law along with similarly onerous ones in other states such as Texas and Wisconsin, found that the process for obtaining voter identifications was so onerous that more than a million people in the studied states could be barred from voting. “These voters can be particularly affected by the significant costs for the documentation required to obtain photo ID. Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. By comparison the notorious poll tax – outlawed during the civil rights era cost $10.64 in current dollars,” The Brennan Center stated.)

The Sept. 18 order from the Pa. Supreme Court first noted that the state’s Constitution declares that “elections must be free and equal and ‘no power, civil, or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.’” The high court tossed the case back to the lower court judge with the order to ensure that implementation of the Voter ID law did not unconstitutionally interfere with the right to vote.

The lower court “is to consider whether the procedures being used for deployment of the cards comport with the requirement of liberal access which the General Assembly attached to the issuance of PennDOT [Department of Transportation] identification cards,” the state high court ordered. “If they do not, or if the Commonwealth Court is not still convinced in its predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the Commonwealth’s implementation of a voter identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election, that court is obliged to enter a preliminary injunction.”

Several civil liberties groups are representing Pennsylvanians challenging the voter ID scheme. Those groups include the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

The Advancement Project’s Judith Brown Dianis told TPM, “Requiring the state to prove the law will not disenfranchise voters is the right step to take. We’re confident that the evidence demonstrates that this law does disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters and should be enjoined.”

Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt in an ACS Issue Brief released earlier this summer said stringent voter ID laws are not only constitutionally suspect, but are typically bad policy. The hurdles to voting that the laws create “are not only real and inequitable but also unnecessary, which renders them suspect as a matter of constitutional law and fundamentally flawed as a matter of public policy. Not only do they make it more difficult for eligible Americans to vote, but they do so without any meaningful benefit,” Levitt wrote.