Polarizing debate preceded voter-ID ruling, will also follow it

    The Commonwealth Court voter identification hearing lasted seven days. 

    Lawyers challenging it called a parade of witnesses to show the myriad ways in which the voter-ID law would make it more difficult for some voters to cast ballots in November.

    Lisa Gray, a Delaware County resident born abroad, was one of them. She lost the birth certificate she needs to get the proper ID that will be required to cast a ballot. Getting a replacement has proved to be an involved and expensive ordeal. She was one of many who testified that the law creates clerical stumbling blocks for people without acceptable photo identification. “I don’t think there’s anything about me that would disqualify me from voting,” she said. “I’m not, you know, too young. I’m not mentally disabled, or whatever you want to call it. So it’s sort of like petty things that should not interfere with a citizen’s ability to exercise a basic right.” Judge Robert Simpson wrote that such testimony “did an excellent job of ‘putting a face’ to those burdened by the voter ID requirement,” but that sympathetic witnesses weren’t enough to under-gird a decision to block the law’s implementation. Injunction denied. Simpson ruled he was unconvinced the photo identification requirement would mean registered voters would not have their ballots counted in the general election. He opined that blocking the law would do more harm than good, writing that the hydraulic machinery of state government moving to implement the law and educate voters about it is much harder to start or restart than stop in mid-stride. And so it goes, says Ron Ruman, spokesman for the agency that oversees elections, the Department of State. “We’re going to go full steam ahead unless we’re told otherwise by a court,” he said. How did we get here? The original rationale given for the law was to deter in-person voter fraud –- someone showing up at the polls and casting a ballot under the identity of another registered voter.  Reports indicate such fraud is exceedingly rare. The commonwealth’s attorneys agreed they knew of no instances of such fraud. The stipulation was seen as quite a coup at the time by the legal team challenging voter ID, including Vic Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.  “The commonwealth very much wants to take voter fraud out of the discussion, because there ain’t no voter fraud to talk about,” he said. Walczak and the rest of his team argued the lack of any evidence to support the law’s original raison d’etre laid bare its true intent: to throw hurdles between the polls and voters most likely to have difficulty obtaining photo identification matching their voter registration.  They mentioned the poor, the elderly, women, minority voters, and the youngest voters -– groups that historically vote Democratic. They played a tape in court of House Majority Leader Mike Turzai’s comments to a Republican audience in late June as evidence the law was politically motivated. “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done,” he said. Turzai has said he meant only that a Republican candidate would have a better shot of winning the state because the voter ID law would establish a level playing field, by eliminating voter fraud. State Senate GOP spokesman Erik Arneson says he took Turzai at his word, but adds — every law has some political ramifications, and one-sided support doesn’t have any bearing on whether the law is constitutional. “The constitution doesn’t have a provision that says, ‘thou shalt not pass bills that one political party prefers over the other,'” he said. Democratic lawmakers, not one of whom voted for the bill, call the court ruling a disgrace, stopping just short of saying Judge Simpson, a Republican, allowed politics to seep into his review of the injunction request. Democratic Senator Daylin Leach of Montgomery County goes a bit further, looking ahead to the forthcoming appeal to the state Supreme Court, which is currently down a judge, leaving three Democrats and three Republicans.  “It would be particularly disturbing if this decision were upheld, three to three, on a partisan vote in the Supreme Court,” said Leach. “That would show this really is about partisanship.” One of the lawyers on the team challenging the voter-ID law says an appeal will be filed to the high court this week, with a request for an expedited review. That means a decision could come next month.

    The Commonwealth Court judge has not ruled on the law’s constitutionality, but he did write in his opinion he doesn’t expect such a challenge to be successful on appeal.

    Editor’s note: The original transcription of GOP spokesman Erik Arneson’s quotation has been corrected.  Arneson said, “”The constitution doesn’t have a provision that says, ‘thou shalt not pass bills that one political party prefers over the other.'”

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