By PETER JACKSON, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
HARRISBURG, Pa. — A trial set to begin Monday on the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's voter identification law represents a major step toward a judicial ruling on whether the photo requirement should be enforced at polling places statewide or thrown out as unconstitutional.
Nine days are set aside for the trial in Harrisburg in Commonwealth Court. Civil libertarians challenging the law and state officials defending it say they expect the state Supreme Court will ultimately decide the case.
At issue is a voter ID law that would be one of the strictest in the nation if it is upheld but has never been enforced.
After legal jousting that reached the state Supreme Court, Judge Robert Simpson blocked enforcement in last year's presidential election and again in this year's municipal and judicial primary because of lingering concern that it could disenfranchise voters who lacked a valid photo ID.
The 2012 law was approved without any Democratic votes by the Legislature's Republican majority and signed by GOP Gov. Tom Corbett amid a bitterly contested White House race in which Democratic President Barack Obama ultimately carried Pennsylvania and was re-elected.
Critics derided the law as a cynical GOP effort to discourage voting by young adults, minorities, the elderly, poor and disabled from going to the polls. Republicans said most Pennsylvanians have driver's licenses to use as photo ID and claimed that the law would discourage voter fraud.
The judge's verdict may be reviewed by a Commonwealth Court panel before an inevitable appeal to the state Supreme Court by the losing side.
Plaintiffs in the case include the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters, the NAACP and the Philadelphia-based Homeless Advocacy Project.
A key issue in the trial will be the availability of alternative photo identification for people who lack a driver's license or other types of acceptable ID listed in the law. The Department of State has developed a special photo ID that is available free to voters who have run out of other options.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs say fewer than 20,000 such IDs have been issued so far, but many more voters still lack valid credentials. State officials say they have made the special cards easily accessible and anyone who does not have valid identification must not want it.