The first round of the 2012 presidential campaign is being waged in courtrooms nationwide, and one of the most important battles got underway Wednesday in the swing state of Pennsylvania, where challengers told a judge that a new voter-identification law violates the commonwealth’s constitution. The plaintiffs in Pennsylvania and other states have skipped the traditional venue of the federal courthouse, where advocates often pursue civil rights cases, opting instead for what they think may be a more successful route in state court. Specific guarantees in the Pennsylvania Constitution, they told Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson, are violated by the new statute. A similar strategy has succeeded in Missouri and Wisconsin, where judges have relied on voting rights protections enshrined in state constitutions to block laws that require voters to present photo identification.
Voting rights advocates are scrambling to fight a rush of legislation adopted over the past two years that, among other changes, curtail the availability of early voting and impose new requirements on voter-registration efforts. Most attention has been focused on requirements that voters show photo identification, a measure that strikes many people as a common-sense notion that voters prove they are who they say they are. Many states require some method of identification, but 10, including Pennsylvania, have passed laws requiring specific kinds of government-issued IDs. “The integrity of the electoral process is not enhanced by turning away people at the ballot box,” said David Gersch, an attorney for 10 individuals and three groups, including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. “Voting is not a privilege. It’s a right.”