Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Voter ID Rules Fail Court Tests Across Country

New York Times
Ethan Bronner

A Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday blocked the key component of a highly contested state law requiring strict photographic identification to vote in next month’s election, saying the authorities had not done enough to ensure that voters had access to the new documents.

Commonwealth Court, had upheld the law in August when liberal-leaning and civil rights groups challenged it. But the state’s Supreme Court instructed him two weeks ago to hold further hearings to focus on whether enough had been done to ensure “liberal access” to the picture ID cards, which are available at driver’s license centers, or alternatives.

Judge Simpson said that on Nov. 6, voters in Pennsylvania could be asked to produce the newly required photo ID but, if they did not have one, could still vote on a normal voting machine, not using a provisional ballot. The state may appeal the decision to the State Supreme Court, but few predicted victory for it, given what the justices had asked of the lower court.

The law’s opponents said the victory was only a partial one.

“While we’re happy that voters in Pennsylvania will not be turned away if they do not have an ID, we are concerned that the ruling will allow election workers to ask for ID at the polls, and this could cause confusion,” said Penda D. Hair, co-director of Advancement Project, one of the groups that challenged the law. “This injunction serves as a mere Band-Aid for the law’s inherent problems, not an effective remedy.”

Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, a right-of-center research group that supports the law, said: “While this may seem to be a win for opponents of common-sense election reform efforts like voter ID, it is actually a loss.”

“The court simply found that the state could not effectively implement the ID requirement in only a month,” he added. “The law is still in place and remains valid.”

The Pennsylvania law, passed in March without any Democratic support, is one of 11 similar laws around the country approved by Republican-dominated legislatures. The laws’ backers say they are trying to ensure the integrity of the electoral process by preventing fraud. But Democrats accuse them of seeking to suppress the votes of the poor and members of minority groups, who are less likely to have the needed ID or the means to go to state offices and obtain one, and who tend to vote Democratic.

In opinion surveys, substantial majorities of Americans back the ID requirements even though repeated efforts to demonstrate the existence of in-person voter fraud have found very little.

Pennsylvania is one of a number of swing states that could make the difference in the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate. Increasingly, however, Mr. Obama, who won Pennsylvania in 2008, has been pulling consistently ahead of Mr. Romney in key states. A Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS News poll released last week showed Mr. Obama ahead in Pennsylvania by 12 points.

The Pennsylvania law’s challengers said their focus now would be to press the state to alter its voter education campaign to make clear that no picture ID is required in this election.

“The state has a large budget to spend on advertising this fact, and we want to make sure it does it,” said Benjamin D. Geffen, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which took part in the law’s challenge.

Nick Winkler, director of public relations for Pennsylvania’s Department of State, said there would indeed be a change.

“Our education campaign is in full swing, and all we have to do is retool it from talking about requiring voter ID to requesting it,” he said. “Poll worker training has not begun in some counties and will now take this into account as well.”

The state has issued 13,000 IDs purely for the purpose of voting, Mr. Winkler said.

Judge Simpson said in his Tuesday decision that the issuing of the new documents across the state had not been fast enough.

“I expected more photo IDs to have been issued by this time,” he wrote. “Under these circumstances, I am obliged to enter a preliminary injunction” preventing the law from being fully carried out. He said there might eventually be a full trial to determine whether the law could be put into effect in a way that did not burden voters.

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