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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Returns Voter ID Case to Lower Court; Must Enjoin Law if It Could Result in Disenfranchisement

(photo: Dean Terrry)

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has returned the controversial voter ID law back to the Commonwealth Court for review in a move that could put an end to voter ID in the state for the year.

The initial reports claimed that the state Supreme Court threw out voter ID, but actually they just remanded it back to the Commonwealth court judge. The nub of the matter concerns the ability for Pennsylvania officials to get a valid ID in the hands of any eligible voter who wants one between now and the election. The number of eligible voters without proper ID under the law ranges as high as 750,000. The Supreme Court [PDF] said that “we are not satisfied with a mere predictive judgment based primarily on the assurances of government officials” that they will be able to pull this off. The Court wants the Commonwealth judge to “consider whether the procedures being used for deployment” of the voter ID cards, which has changed a couple times over the past several months, meets with the Constitutional requirements of the state. If the Commonwealth judge believes there will potentially be voter disenfranchisement, under current rules, he should enjoin the law, the Supreme Court said. Here’s the meat of their ruling:

[T]he Law contemplates that the primary form of photo identification to be used by voters is a Department of Transportation (PennDOT) driver’s license or the non-driver equivalent provided under Section 1510(b) of the Vehicle Code. Furthermore, the Law specifically requires that – notwithstanding provisions of Section 1510(b) relating to the issuance and content of the cards – PennDOT shall issue them at no cost . . . . As such, the Law establishes a policy of liberal access to Section 1510(b) identification cards.

However, as implementation of the Law has proceeded, PennDOT – apparently for good reason – has refused to allow such liberal access. Instead, the Department continues to vet applicants for Section 1510(b) cards through an identification process that Commonwealth officials appear to acknowledge is a rigorous one. Generally, the process requires the applicant to present a birth certificate with a raised seal (or a document considered to be an equivalent), a social security card, and two forms of documentation showing current residency. The reason why PennDOT will not implement the Law as written is that the Section 1510(b) driver’s license equivalent is a secure form of identification, which may be used, for example, to board commercial aircraft.

The Department of State has realized, and the Commonwealth parties have candidly conceded, that the Law is not being implemented according to its terms.

So the state Supreme Court put a fairly high standard on the Commonwealth Court, that would suggest an enjoinment of the law, at least until after the election. Vacating the voter ID law would end any possibility of disenfranchisement through turning away voters for lack of ID. The state Supreme Court set the standard that access to ID cards must be extremely easy and generous in order for the law to go forward.

That’s pretty clearly not the case now. There are a limited amount of PennDOT offices available to administer ID cards, and 13 of them are only open once a week. Up until a couple days ago it took two trips to the PennDOT offices to get the ID. With many of the potentially disenfranchised voters elderly, disabled, not close to a PennDOT office and/or with no access to a vehicle clearly there’s a hardship here for the eligible voters, presumably enough to enjoin the law.

But that’s in the hands of the Commonwealth Court judge who already allowed this law to go forward. However, the guidelines handed down by the state Supreme Court for adjudicating this are much more restrictive.

We’re not all the way there yet, but this comes close to a big victory for voting rights activists. Think Progress has more.

UPDATE: Great point from Marcy Wheeler. The failure to get these voter ID laws passed points to the sharp public sector cutbacks we’ve seen in states like Pennsylvania, which in turn makes the provision of public services more difficult. People would get disenfranchised under the law because of the difficulty in obtaining ID. In a government not drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub, this would not be such an ordeal, and the law would presumably be able to go forward.

CommunityThe Bullpen

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Returns Voter ID Case to Lower Court; Must Enjoin Law if It Could Result in Disenfranchisement

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has returned the controversial voter ID law back to the Commonwealth Court for review in a move that could put an end to voter ID in the state for the year.

The initial reports claimed that the state Supreme Court threw out voter ID, but actually they just remanded it back to the Commonwealth court judge. The nub of the matter concerns the ability for Pennsylvania officials to get a valid ID in the hands of any eligible voter who wants one between now and the election. The number of eligible voters without proper ID under the law ranges as high as 750,000. The Supreme Court [PDF] said that “we are not satisfied with a mere predictive judgment based primarily on the assurances of government officials” that they will be able to pull this off. The Court wants the Commonwealth judge to “consider whether the procedures being used for deployment” of the voter ID cards, which has changed a couple times over the past several months, meets with the Constitutional requirements of the state. If the Commonwealth judge believes there will potentially be voter disenfranchisement, under current rules, he should enjoin the law, the Supreme Court said. Here’s the meat of their ruling:

[T]he Law contemplates that the primary form of photo identification to be used by voters is a Department of Transportation (PennDOT) driver’s license or the non-driver equivalent provided under Section 1510(b) of the Vehicle Code. Furthermore, the Law specifically requires that – notwithstanding provisions of Section 1510(b) relating to the issuance and content of the cards – PennDOT shall issue them at no cost . . . . As such, the Law establishes a policy of liberal access to Section 1510(b) identification cards.

However, as implementation of the Law has proceeded, PennDOT – apparently for good reason – has refused to allow such liberal access. Instead, the Department continues to vet applicants for Section 1510(b) cards through an identification process that Commonwealth officials appear to acknowledge is a rigorous one. Generally, the process requires the applicant to present a birth certificate with a raised seal (or a document considered to be an equivalent), a social security card, and two forms of documentation showing current residency. The reason why PennDOT will not implement the Law as written is that the Section 1510(b) driver’s license equivalent is a secure form of identification, which may be used, for example, to board commercial aircraft.

The Department of State has realized, and the Commonwealth parties have candidly conceded, that the Law is not being implemented according to its terms.

So the state Supreme Court put a fairly high standard on the Commonwealth Court, that would suggest an enjoinment of the law, at least until after the election. Vacating the voter ID law would end any possibility of disenfranchisement through turning away voters for lack of ID. The state Supreme Court set the standard that access to ID cards must be extremely easy and generous in order for the law to go forward.

That’s pretty clearly not the case now. There are a limited amount of PennDOT offices available to administer ID cards, and 13 of them are only open once a week. Up until a couple days ago it took two trips to the PennDOT offices to get the ID. With many of the potentially disenfranchised voters elderly, disabled, not close to a PennDOT office and/or with no access to a vehicle clearly there’s a hardship here for the eligible voters, presumably enough to enjoin the law.

But that’s in the hands of the Commonwealth Court judge who already allowed this law to go forward. However, the guidelines handed down by the state Supreme Court for adjudicating this are much more restrictive.

We’re not all the way there yet, but this comes close to a big victory for voting rights activists. Think Progress has more.

UPDATE: Great point from Marcy Wheeler. The failure to get these voter ID laws passed points to the sharp public sector cutbacks we’ve seen in states like Pennsylvania, which in turn makes the provision of public services more difficult. People would get disenfranchised under the law because of the difficulty in obtaining ID. In a government not drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub, this would not be such an ordeal, and the law would presumably be able to go forward.

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