Pennsylvania Commonwealth Judge Robert E. Simpson discussed the possibility of blocking part of the state’s voter identification law after upholding the statute in an earlier decision.
Simpson, who is reviewing his ruling at the request of the state Supreme Court, asked attorneys whether a narrow injunction that barred possible disenfranchisement such as rules governing provisional ballots would suffice. Simpson made his comments at the end of a hearing in Harrisburg during which voters and activists testified about problems accessing the identification required to comply with the law.
“I’m wondering if there is something else besides all or nothing here,” Simpson asked. “Are there any parts of it that can be preserved?”
Witold Walczak, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, replied, “We do not see a remedy short of enjoining the enforcement of the ID requirements at the polls in the next election.”
The case, brought by the ACLU in May, is among multiple court battles over voting rules in so-called swing states including Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin, where Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns see the possibility of victory. A state analysis found that Pennsylvania’s photo ID requirement might exclude as much as 9 percent of the state’s electorate from voting in the presidential election.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, carried Pennsylvania, which has 20 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency, by 620,478 votes in 2008, fewer than the number of voters that might be kept from the polls on Nov. 6, the ACLU and advocacy groups said.
Pennsylvania’s law, enacted in March, requires voters to present a state-issued ID or an acceptable alternative such as a military ID or federal employee identification, to cast a ballot. While a person may vote without photo ID by casting a provisional ballot, that ballot would only be counted if the voter presents a copy of acceptable ID within six days of the election.
D. Alicia Hickok, an attorney for Republican Governor Tom Corbett, told Simpson that the state will suggest changes to provisional ballot rules. A ruling completely barring the law’s enforcement would lead to “chaos,” she said.
Hickok’s comments came after voters and activists testified that state workers are poorly trained on how to implement the law. The testimony highlights questions raised by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on whether the state was living up to the law’s requirement that it provide liberal access to alternative forms of ID.
The state Supreme court, in a 4-2 ruling on Sept. 18, ordered Simpson to review the availability of alternative IDs and issue an opinion by Oct. 2. Post-trial filings in the case are due by end of day tomorrow. Simpson will issue a final ruling after careful review of those filings, he said.
The witnesses, including three workers for the Service Employees International Union, told Simpson about long wait times at Pennsylvania Department of Transportation centers, missing application forms, confused workers and glitches in verifying voter registrations.
“No it’s not easy to get a Pennsylvania voting ID or a Pennsylvania ID,” LaKeisha Pannell testified.
Pannell, a 35-year-old mother from Philadelphia, told Simpson it took her two trips to PennDOT and the assistance of a law fellow for the SEIU to get a Department of State voting-only ID card.
The law fellow, LaRell Purdie, told Simpson that PennDOT workers seemed confused about the process or the types of ID people could get. People waited in lines at least two hours to get IDs during a visit to one center on Aug. 28, Purdie said.
Doris Clark, a 68 year-old Philadelphia resident, testified it took her four trips to PennDOT and two trips to the Social Security office for her to be issued a Department of State voting-only ID card. The final trip required an all-day visit and a late-afternoon tirade before she was given a card, she said.
“I said, ‘That’s it, I’m just not going to vote,’” Clark said of her rant in the minutes before closing at one center. “I was tired.”
It was only then she was offered the free voting-only card, Clark said. The underlying documents she had to prove her identity included a Social Security office receipt showing she applied for a replacement card, a copy of her birth certificate and her husband’s death certificate to show her name change.
Opponents of the law said likely Democratic voters, such as the elderly and the poor, are those least likely to have a valid ID by Election Day. The Department of State, which governs elections, on Aug. 27 began offering new alternative ID cards as a last resort for those unable to obtain a valid substitute. Earlier this week, the department loosened rules for getting the card, making it available as a first choice for all eligible voters and eliminating a proof of residency requirement.
The new rules sufficiently addressed the state Supreme Court’s concerns about access, Alfred Putnam, an attorney for Corbett, said at the start of a review hearing before Simpson on Sept. 25.
Lawyers for the ACLU and advocacy groups countered that the state has issued only 9 percent of the minimum number of IDs it estimates are needed and as many as 25 percent of applicants have had issues obtaining the DOS card since its implementation.
About 1,300 DOS cards have been given out in the past month in addition to the 9,500 cards issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation since March, state officials said Sept. 25.
At the start of today’s hearing, Simpson admonished attorneys on both sides about rising tensions in the case.
“I’m concerned by the conduct of counsel,” Simpson said. “You need to stay calm.”
Plaintiff lawyers complained that the state once again relaxed its requirements for ID cards on the eve of the rehearing. Attorneys for the state countered that the ACLU was attempting to litigate the case by surprise with witnesses not previously listed in pre-trial filings. Simpson sided with the state in ruling that several witnesses couldn’t take the stand, including Stephanie Singer, the top elections official in Philadelphia.
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