Pa. Judge Can’t See the Obstacles, Upholds Political Effort to Suppress the Vote

August 15, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

The tired, tawdry politics fueling the raft of harsh voter ID laws received a boost today via a flimsy and annoying Pennsylvania state court judge’s opinion.

Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson shunted aside arguments that Pennsylvania’s new voter ID measure shoved into law by rightwing lawmakers just in time for the approaching presidential election that makes voting much more difficult for low-income people, minorities, the elderely and students to vote.

A recent report from the Brennan Center for Law and Justice, which studied Pennsylvania’s law and a number of the other outlandish voter suppression measures, showed that it was not easy for working people, the elderly and others to obtain the proper ID for voting. The offices have restricted hours and can be difficult to get to, especially for people trying to hold down jobs to feed and house families. The Brennan Center said that more “than 1 million eligible voters in these 10 photo ID states fall below the federal poverty line and reside more than 10 miles from the nearest ID-issuing office. 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.”

Judge Simpson, however, was unmoved by the onerous hurdles, saying that voters unable to obtain the proper photo ID could rely on absentee or provisional ballots. The judge’s opinion is available here.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter are representing Pennsylvanians challenging the law.

Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project, blasted Simpson’s decision, calling it an “affront to a core American value and takes us back to a dark time in our nation’s history. This requires hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters who lack the specific government-issued photo ID to jump through burdensome hoops to exercise their most basic legal right. Many will not be able to vote at all.”

Suppressing the vote, regardless of what some journalists will claim, is the overarching motivation behind most of the new measures. Indeed in Pennsylvania, one lawmaker boasted to a gathering of Republicans that the new voter ID law would help Mitt Romney carry the state in November.   

TPM’s Ryan J. Reilly says the Pa. voter ID law is likely to suppress the elderly voters and those in urban areas, and notes that the state has “given a contract to a Republican lobbying company to educate voters about the law.”

In a June ACS Issue Brief, Loyola Law School Professor Justin Levitt knocked the new voter ID laws as not only constitutionally suspect, but decried them as poor public policy. The burdens caused by the laws, Levitt wrote “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.”

Rightwing lawmakers, when not behind closed doors with supporters, claim the laws are needed to confront rampant voter fraud in America. But as Levitt and numerous other election law experts have pointed out time and again, voter fraud is practically nonexistent in this country. In reality the voter fraud claim is a front for a move to suppress the vote.

Today The New York Times editorial board blasted the efforts in Ohio, another Republican-controlled statehouse that has passed new onerous restrictions on voting.

In that state, Republican-leaning suburbs of Cincinnati will have extended voting opportunities starting in October – the suburban voters can head to the polls in the evening and on the weekends. But if you live in the city, you’re voting opportunities are restricted. The voting hours in the city are limited and not allowed on the weekends. The convenience to be enjoyed by the wealthy suburban, and mostly Republican voters, in other words “will not be extended to the city’s working people,” the editorial notes.

The editorial continues:

The sleazy politics behind the disparity is obvious. Hamilton County, which contains Cincinnati, is largely Democratic and voted solidly for Barack Obama in 2008. So did the other urban areas of Cleveland, Columbus and Akron, where Republicans, with the assistance of the Ohio secretary of state, Jon Husted, have already eliminated the extended hours for early voting.

In calculated, and yes, sleazy actions, rightwing lawmakers are feverishly working to diminish our democracy. Civil liberties groups, such as the Advancement Project, and the Department of Justice are fighting back. Today a flippant, shoddy opinion from a state court judge in Pennsylvania provided another obstacle.

[image via KClvey]