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Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Opponents Regroup After Judge Refuses To Block New Election Rules

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Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann holds a postcard to help identify voters in need of a free state government issued card. A Pennsylvania judge refused to block a controversial voter ID law on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann holds a postcard to help identify voters in need of a free state government issued card. A Pennsylvania judge refused to block a controversial voter ID law on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Steven Singer was getting ready to start his day Wednesday morning when he got wind of some news: a Pennsylvania judge decided not to block the state's polarizing new voter ID law.

"I was pretty sure that the courts were going to strike this down," said Singer, an eighth-grade school teacher in Allegheny County, Pa. "I was really shocked by this verdict."

Two weeks ago, Singer started a petition challenging local elections officials to declare that they wouldn't enforce the state's new law, following similar statements made by other election officials elsewhere in the state.

Under the new law, which went into effect in March, voters must present certain types of approved identification for in-person voting. The most widely available form of ID that is valid for voting is a state-issued driver's license or non-driver's ID. Critics of the law have argued that it effectively disenfranchises the poor, the elderly, African Americans and Latinos, all groups that are less likely to have official identification -- and groups that tend to vote for Democratic candidates.

"Part of the reason I feel I'm able to speak out about this is because the community in which I live has a large population of minority students," Singer said. "This is going to affect the parents of the students that I teach."

But in his ruling, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said that he believed the law would be observed in a "non-partisan, even-handed manner."

There have been different estimates given for the number of people who will be affected by the law. Transportation officials said in July that more than 750,000 Pennsylvania voters did not have state IDs. The AFL-CIO found that in Philadelphia alone, more than 437,000 voters , might not have the right ID to vote in November.

The most common argument for voter ID laws is that they are needed to prevent in-person voter fraud. But Pennsylvania officials conceded in a stipulation agreement that the state had never prosecuted anyone for in-person voter fraud, and that there was no evidence that anyone had ever attempted it.

There are now 32 states with voter ID laws on the books, with many of the new rules going into place after Republicans won control of several statehouses after the 2010 midterm elections.

In June, Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader in Pennsylvania's House of Representatives, said that the election rules would help presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney defeat President Obama in the Keystone State this November. (Obama leads Romney in most major polls conducted in the state.)

Penda Hair of the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group, said that Judge Simpson used the least stringent legal standard in his ruling: He did not consider whether the state had a compelling interest in passing the law, or that it had sufficiently weighed the state's interests against those of voters, but instead considered whether passing the law was within the lawmakers' purview.

"The court said that unless the legislature has [participated] in gross misconduct, we're going to defer to the legislature," Hair said. "I was expecting the court to apply a standard of review that would be protective of voters."

Hair said that her organization was going to file an appeal to the state's high court on Thursday.

Other civil rights groups have denounced the decision. "This law, like other state laws enacted across the U.S., has the potential to suppress thousands of votes in the Commonwealth during this election," Ben Jealous, the NAACP's president, said in a statement.

For his part, Singer said he'll now switch gears to focus on helping people to understand how the new rules will affect them. "There's lots of people who say, 'oh, just get an ID, you need an ID for everything in this world,'" he said. "I think people need to have the imagination and the empathy to understand that there are people out there who are not like you."

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