The first legal test for Pennsylvania’s tough new voter identification law began Wednesday, with state lawyers calling the measure a completely rational step, while opponents attacked it as an unnecessary, unjustified and partisan scheme that will deprive countless people of their right to vote. The law is the subject of a furious debate over voting rights as Pennsylvania is poised to play a key role in deciding the Nov. 6 presidential election. Republicans say if GOP candidate Mitt Romney wins Pennsylvania, then President Barack Obama, a Democrat, will lose the national election. Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who presided over a packed courtroom, must decide whether to block the law from taking effect in this year’s election as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality. The original rationale in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature for the law — to prevent election fraud — will play little role in the legal case since the state’s lawyers have decided not to make that argument and acknowledged that they are “not aware of any incidents of in person voter fraud.” Instead, they are trying to show that lawmakers properly exercised their latitude to make election-related laws when they chose to require voters to show widely available forms of photo identification.
David Gersch, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told Simpson that the law could make it difficult for more than a million people to exercise their right to vote and that justification — to prevent election fraud — is a pretext. The real purpose is for partisan advantage, Gersch said. “That is not under any circumstances a compelling state interest,” Gersch told Simpson.
The first three plaintiffs to testify Wednesday were all older women, minorities and Philadelphia residents who said they vote regularly. But they have no valid identification under the new law, and they apparently don’t have the required documents — a birth certificate, a Social Security card and two proofs of residency — necessary to get the most common kind, a state photo ID.