HARRISBURG, Pa. — A tough new voter identification law championed by Republicans can take effect in Pennsylvania for November's presidential election, a judge ruled Wednesday, despite a torrent of criticism that it will suppress votes among President Barack Obama's supporters and make it harder for the elderly, disabled, poor and young adults to vote.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said he would not grant an injunction that would have halted the law, which requires each voter to show a valid photo ID. Opponents are expected to file an appeal within a day or two to the state Supreme Court as the Nov. 6 election looms.
"We're not done, it's not over," said Witold J. Walczak, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who helped argue the case for the plaintiffs. "It's why they make appeals courts."
The Republican-penned law – which passed over the objections of Democrats – has ignited a furious debate over voting rights as Pennsylvania is poised to play a key role in deciding the presidential contest. Plaintiffs, including a 93-year-old woman who recalled marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1960, had asked Simpson during a six-day hearing earlier this summer to block the law from taking effect in this year's election as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.
Republicans, who defend the law as necessary to protect the integrity of the election, praised Simpson's decision, while it was decried by Democrats who say the law will make it harder, if not impossible, for hundreds of thousands people who lack ID for valid reasons to vote.
Opponents portray the law as a partisan scheme to help the Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, beat Obama. Their passionate objections were inflamed in June when the state's Republican House leader boasted to a party gathering that the new photo ID requirement "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state."
Simpson, a Republican, didn't rule on the full merits of the case, only whether to grant a preliminary injunction stopping it from taking effect. He rejected claims that the law is unconstitutional and ruled that the challenge did not meet the stiff requirements to win an injunction.
"The statute simply gives poll workers another tool to verify that the person voting is who they claim to be," Simpson said.
But lawyers for those who sued questioned Simpson's choice to give strong deference to the government. A key element of their appeal will likely revolve around Simpson's decision not to put a heavier legal burden on the government to justify a law that, they say, infringes on a constitutional right.
At the state Supreme Court, votes by four justices would be needed to overturn Simpson's ruling. The high court is currently split between three Republicans and three Democrats following the recent suspension of Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican who is fighting criminal corruption charges.
In his 70-page opinion, Simpson said the plaintiffs "did an excellent job of `putting a face' to those burdened by the voter ID requirement," but he said he didn't have the luxury of deciding the case based on sympathy. Rather, he said he believed that state officials and agencies were actively resolving problems with getting photos IDs and that they would carry out the law in a "nonpartisan, even-handed manner."
Because of those efforts, "the inconvenience of going to PennDOT, gathering required documents, and posing for a photograph does not qualify as a substantial burden on the vast supermajority of registered voters," he wrote.
He singled out the comments by the Republican House leader, Mike Turzai, as "disturbing" and "boastful," but said the law is neutral, nondiscriminatory and applies uniformly to all voters. In addition, Speculation about the potential problems in issuing valid photo IDs or confusion on Election Day did not warrant "invalidation of all lawful applications" of it, he wrote.
In a brief statement, Gov. Tom Corbett said the state "can continue to focus our attention on ensuring that every Pennsylvania citizen who wants to vote has the identification necessary to make sure their vote counts."
The original Republican rationale for the law – to prevent election fraud – played little role in the court case. Government lawyers acknowledged that they are "not aware of any incidents of in person voter fraud." Instead, they insisted that lawmakers properly exercised their latitude to make election-related laws.
Corbett, a Republican, signed the law in March after every single Democratic lawmaker voted against it.
The requirement that all Pennsylvania voters produce a valid photo ID before their ballot can be counted is a substantial change from the law it was designed to replace. That law required identification only for people voting in a polling place for the first time and it allowed nonphoto documents such as a utility bill or bank statement.
Some of the people who sued say they will be unable to vote because they lack the necessary documents, including a birth certificate, to get a state photo ID, the most widely available of the IDs that are valid under the new law.
Plaintiffs' lawyers presented testimony about workers at Department of Transportation license centers who appeared uninformed about the requirement to issue free nondriver photo IDs. In addition, some voters won't know about the law until they get to the polls, and long waits will result while untrained election workers struggle to carry out a complicated and unnecessary law amid the traditionally larger turnout in presidential elections, they argued.
Lawyers from the attorney general's office, which defended the law, pointed out that the state is planning to begin issuing a special photo ID card for registered voters who are unable to get a PennDOT-issued ID and lack other acceptable photo IDs, such as passports or active-duty military IDs. The state also is rolling out a public relations campaign to make people aware of the law.
Meanwhile, Obama's Department of Justice is looking at the law and has asked state officials for information about it.