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September 27, 2012

Election 2012: Witnesses to detail voter ID law barriers

HARRISBURG — Lawyers hoping to persuade a judge to order a halt to a new Pennsylvania law that requires voters to show photo identification at the polls are bringing people to court Thursday to testify about hurdles they have encountered trying to get valid IDs.

The testimony in the hastily arranged hearing is expected to last much of the day. After that, all eyes will be on Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who hinted after the hearing’s first day this week that an injunction is possible.

However, Simpson gave no indication what an injunction might say or whether it would prevent the entire law from taking effect for the Nov. 6 election, as the law’s opponents are seeking.

The hearing in front of Simpson is the latest chapter in a legal challenge to the 6-month-old law that has sparked a divisive debate over voting rights and has become a partisan lightning rod in the contest between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for Pennsylvania’s prized 20 electoral votes.

Simpson is under orders from the state Supreme Court to halt the law by next Tuesday — just five weeks before the election — if he finds the state has not met the law’s promise of providing free and easy access to a photo ID or if he believes it will prevent any registered voters from casting a ballot.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say registered voters continue to be turned away from state driver licensing centers without a photo ID. They cite burdensome and complicated requirements that ill-informed clerks at the license centers have handled poorly.

State officials say they believe the number of people who need an ID to vote is small — the state had issued less than 11,000 free IDs as of Monday — and they contend that an 11th-hour overhaul in the requirements for someone to get a voting-only photo ID should comply with the Supreme Court’s directions.

But opponents of the law say the Legislature intended that photo ID cards be freely available in March, when the law passed, not with just a few weeks left before the election. In addition, they contend that many people still do not know about the law and say that the state’s performance up until now ensures that some people will be prevented from exercising their right to vote, particularly college students, the poor, minorities, the elderly and the disabled.

In the meantime, the state has pressed ahead, sending postcards about the law to registered voters, airing TV and radio commercials and posting ads on billboards and mass transit vehicles.

Simpson initially denied the request for a preliminary injunction in August, saying the plaintiffs did not show that “disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable.” But after an appeal, the Supreme Court directed him to use a much tougher standard for tolerating voter disenfranchisement.

Pennsylvania’s new law is among the toughest in the nation. The prior law required identification only for people voting in a polling place for the first time and it allowed non-photo documents such as utility bills or bank statements. The new law requires each voter to show a particular form of photo ID, such as a driver’s license, passport, active duty military identification, nursing home ID or college student ID.

 

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