Pennsylvania Top Court Set to Hear Voter-ID Law Case
By Sophia Pearson – Sep 13, 2012 9:41 AM ET
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments today over the state’s voter-ID law as a new study found almost 700,000 young, minority voters nationwide could be barred from the polls by similar statutes.
Proponents argue the law, passed by Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature, is needed to stop voter fraud and enhance the integrity of the election process. Voter advocacy groups say the measure is aimed at keeping some likely Democratic voters away from the polls.
Laws requiring photo identification to vote in battleground states including Pennsylvania and Florida could be the deciding factor in the Nov. 6 presidential election, according to the study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago. More than 100,000 voters under the age of 30 could be barred in Florida and as many as 44,000 in Pennsylvania if the laws in those states are upheld, according to the study.
Pennsylvania is one of nine states requiring voters to show a state-issued ID before casting a ballot. Last month, a lower- court judge denied a request to block the law, ruling that the American Civil Liberties Union and 10 citizen-plaintiffs failed to prove it would disenfranchise voters. Seventeen states require voters to present some kind of photo.
The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on an expedited basis. Lawyers in the case said it’s unlikely the justices will rule today.
Pennsylvania’s law, enacted in March, requires a driver’s license or other state-issued ID, or an acceptable alternative such as a military ID, to cast a ballot in November. The Pennsylvania Department of State began offering a new identification card for voting on Aug. 27 as a last resort for those unable to obtain any other state-issued ID.
A state analysis found the state’s photo requirement might exclude as much as 9 percent of the electorate from voting in the presidential election.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, carried Pennsylvania by 620,478 votes in 2008, fewer than the number who might be kept from the polls this November, according to the law’s challengers. Pennsylvania has 20 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.
Backed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, the law follows similar measures passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in other states since Obama’s 2008 victory. Just two states adopted voter-ID laws before 2008.
Overall, the states where photo-ID laws have been enacted would probably see a total drop in turnout by young minorities of as much as 696,000, possibly falling below 2004 and 2008 levels, according to a study by University of Chicago political science professor Cathy J. Cohen and Jon C. Rogowski of Washington University. Across the country, at least 16 competitive races for the House of Representatives have photo identification requirements that are likely to affect minority voters disproportionately, they concluded.
Even so, the professors acknowledged “a variety of challenges associated with ascertaining the likely consequences of these laws,” because of the difficulty in determining how many Americans lack valid government-issued identification and because results differ by state.
The arguments of the ACLU and other advocacy groups before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hinge on the level of scrutiny Commonwealth Court Judge Richard Simpson should have applied in evaluating the merits of the case. They said in court filings that the proper legal standard, because the law may affect the right to vote, is “strict scrutiny,” which would put the burden on the state to prove why the law is necessary.
Simpson ruled that a “deferential standard” was appropriate, with the court deferring to the judgment of Legislature to make rules for elections.
A constitutional challenge to election regulations must weigh the claimed effect on the right to vote against the precise interests shown by the state, Simpson said in his ruling, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Pennsylvania’s “valid neutral justifications” were sufficient, Simpson said.
The Legislature simply exercised its discretion to regulate elections, lawyers for Representative Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican from suburban Pittsburgh who sponsored the voter-ID bill, and other members of the house who voted for the law, said in a friend-of-the-court filing.
Last month, U.S. courts rejected election-related laws passed by Republican-controlled legislatures in Ohio, Florida and Texas, finding they violated the right to vote. At least 14 cases challenging voter-list purges, provisional-ballot rules, early voting curbs or photo ID mandates are pending in Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Florida and Ohio.
Yesterday, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted lost a bid for a U.S. court order delaying enforcement of an Aug. 31 ruling equalizing the number of early voting days for all the state’s citizens before the Nov. 6 election.
The Ohio and national Democratic parties, along with Obama’s campaign, sued Husted in July arguing it was unconstitutional for the state to grant three more early or absentee voting days to those residents in the armed forces or living overseas than to all other voters. U.S. District Judge Peter Economus in Columbus, Ohio, agreed, ruling that all the state’s citizens must be allowed to cast pre-Election Day ballots through Nov. 5.
The case is Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 71 MAP 2012, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
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