So here we were, waiting for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision on the state’s tough voter ID law, assuming the court would be divided along party lines – that the Democrats would want to enjoin the law, and two Republicans would want to uphold it, and that Chief Justice Ron Castille would cast the deciding vote.
Boy, were we – I guess I really mean I – wrong.
The court was unanimously skeptical of the finding by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson that state officials would find a way to get suitable IDs to any voters who lacked them.
And in retrospect, it seems hard to see it any other way. The real mystery is how Simpson, by reputation a wise jurist, saw it his way.
Even Simpson conceded there were tens of thousands of registered voters who didn’t have ID acceptable under the new law, and it was hard (for me, and many others) to see how all of those voters would get cards by the Nov. 6th election.
All sides seem to concede that the legislature has the authority to impose this requirement for voting. But it seemed pretty apparent that if they tried to apply it in November, there was a very real prospect that many thousands of qualified voters would be disenfranchised.
Given the lack of any evidence in the record for the kind of voter fraud ID’s would prevent, it seemed like common sense to put the brakes on and proceed more cautiously.
So the decision signed by all the Republicans on the court and one Democrat pretty much told Simpson to take a closer look and, unless he’s absolutely certain nobody will be disenfranchised, enjoin implementation of the law.
The other two Democrats went further, saying the court should have enjoined implementation of the law directly.
One ID as good as another?
If you look at the Supreme Court’s decision, there’s an interesting issue embedded there about whether the state can legally issue its brand-new voter-only identification card, and whether it satisfies the intent of the voter ID law.
The court notes that in passing the voter ID law, the legislature “contemplates that the primary form of photo identification to be used by voters” is a PennDOT driver’s license or the PennDOT non-driver ID. The court further concludes that the legislature thought there should be “liberal access” to the non-driver cards for voters that need them.
But there’s a problem. The PennDOT non-driver ID is a secure identification card which conforms to Department of Homeland Security standards, and is thus not so easy to get. Which is why when elderly voters born in the South found they couldn’t come up with the birth certificates and other stuff they needed to get the ID, they faced disenfranchisement.
The Department of State sought to remedy this problem by inventing the new voter-only ID card which would be easier to get (but would still be issued by PennDOT).
In their written opinion, the justices note that preparations for these cards were still underway when Simpson held his hearing on the law, and thus he couldn’t know how effectively they would solve the potential disenfranchisement problem.
But they also seem to question whether the new cards fulfill the requirements of the voter ID legislation. They instruct Judge Simpson to “consider whether the procedures being used for the deployment of the cards comport with the requirement of liberal access which the General Assembly attached to the issue of PennDOT identification cards.”
This is wonky, I know, but I’ll be interested to see where it leads.
For other insights, see my colleague Emma Jacobs’ annotated copy of the Supreme Court Decision below: