A wave of new voting restrictions have been struck down by the courts in recent weeks. A major exception is Pennsylvania, where Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, declined to issue a preliminary injunction against the state’s controversial voter ID law on August 15. Today in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court convened in a packed, standing-room-only courtroom to revisit the law. A decision is expected in the next few weeks to determine whether Pennsylvania will be the largest swing state with a new, restrictive voter ID law on the books for the 2012 election. David Gersch, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs (which include voting rights groups such as the ACLU and the Advancement Project), argued that Judge Simpson erred in failing to conclude that Pennsylvania’s voter ID law “impermissibly violates the right to vote.” Gersch noted the significance of holding the hearing in Philadelphia, “the birthplace of American democracy,” in a state whose constitution explicitly protects the right to vote. Gersch asked, once again, for an injunction against the law based on three major points: (a) “the right to vote is a fundamental right” harmed by the law; (b) the voter ID law was not a mere election regulation but something far more significant and burdensome; and (c) the law was not narrowly tailored toward its legislative goal of stopping voter fraud.
Toward that end, Gersch offered three major facts that are central to the case: (1) Pennsylvania has already admitted in court filings that there is no evidence of in-person voter impersonation that a voter ID law would stop; (2) that hundreds of thousands of registered Pennsylvania voters do not have the new voter ID; and (3) that many of these registered voters without voter ID will have difficulty obtaining an ID, either because they can’t get, or afford, the underlying documents, like a birth certificate, needed to receive a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) ID or can’t easily make it to a PennDOT office, which have limited hours and locations. Gersch noted that the election is only fifty-four days away and yet the state remains unprepared to implement the law and doesn’t seem committed to ensuring that every registered Pennsylvania voter has the opportunity to cast a ballot. “The vice is not in requiring photo ID,” he said. “The vice is requiring a photo ID that not everyone has and has trouble getting.”
The number of voters who don’t have ID has varied wildly according to estimates, ranging from 1 percent to 12 percent of registered voters. The state initially alleged that 99 percent of voters had ID, but a state official admitted that figure was calculated in less than twenty-four hours with limited data. A Department of Transportation study found that 758,000 registered voters did not have a PennDOT ID—a number the state disputes. University of Washington political scientist Matt Baretto, a witness for the ACLU, found that more than 1 million registered voters didn’t have valid voter ID. Judge Simpson said that the number “is somewhat more than 1 percent and significantly less than 9 percent,” which still leaves 100,000 to 500,000 registered voters without ID, Gersch noted. Yet only 6,000 voters have thus far obtained a Penndot ID for the purposes of voting. “I would suspect that we would not be anywhere close to issuing 10,000 of those cards,” said Kurt Myers, deputy secretary of safety administration at PennDOT.