Voting rights advocates are hailing this week’s decision by the state Supreme Court, which threw a suit challenging the new voter ID law back to a lower court for further review, as a positive development in their effort to delay the law’s implementation.
“It’s a positive step toward ensuring access to the ballot box for the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians still faced with the prospect of potential disenfranchisement,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “With limited time left until Election Day, a limited number of PennDOT locations and hours, and approximately 800,000 qualified and registered voters without approved ID, this law cannot stand.”
The NAACP was one of several advocacy groups, which also included the ACLU and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, that challenged the law in court.
In August they asked the Commonwealth Court to issue an injunction delaying implementation of the law until after the Nov. 6 presidential election. On Aug. 15, Judge Robert Simpson rejected their request. They appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard arguments last week.
On Tuesday, the court’s six sitting justices, in a 4-2 decision, remanded the case back to Commonwealth Court, ordering it to issue an injunction if it finds that the new law will prevent voters from voting on Nov. 6. If the lower court finds that there is no voter disenfranchisement, then the law will stand.
Judge Simpson has until Oct. 2 to issue a ruling.
Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, Justice J. Michael Eakin and Justice Thomas G. Saylor, the court’s three Republicans, were joined by Democrat Max Baer in the majority opinion.
“We … return the matter to the Commonwealth Court to make a present assessment of the actual availability of the alternate identification cards on a developed record in light of the experience since the time the cards became available,” the majority justices wrote.
Two Democrats, Debra McCloskey Todd and Seamus McCaffery, issued dissenting opinions, blasting their colleagues for the decision.
“In my view, the time for prediction is over. Forty-nine days before a Presidential Election, the question no longer is whether the Commonwealth can constitutionally implement this law but whether it has,” Todd wrote in her dissent. “The majority … allows the Commonwealth to virtually ignore the election clock and once again try to defend its inexplicable need to rush this law into application. Seven weeks before the election voters deserve to know the rules.”
The key words in the majority opinion were “no voter disenfranchisement,” said David Gersch, the attorney who argued for voting rights advocates last week before the court, adding that he was pleased the justice set a high standard for the review by Commonwealth Court. “That is a very tough standard to meet. The Commonwealth is going to have a lot to show.”
Overall, Gersch was pleased, he said.
“It’s certainly a very positive step in the right direction, in that the court recognizes that the state does not make adequate provision for people to get the ID that they would need to vote,” he said.
Estimates of how many voters might be disenfranchised vary widely, but earlier this year state officials estimated that 186,830 Philadelphians lacked the identification need to cast a ballot. Across the state that number ballooned to 758,000 registered voters.
In rejecting the application for an injunction, Simpson acknowledged that about 1 percent of voters, or about 89,000 people, could be disenfranchised by the law.
Criticism of the law often breaks down according to party affiliation. Democrats argue it is intended to disenfranchise young, old, poor and minority voters. Republicans contend that is needed to prevent voter fraud.
The law was passed by a Republican-dominated legislature and quickly signed in March by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Focusing on the fact that in the majority opinion, the justices said they believed the administration was working in “good faith” to make sure as many voters as possible had the necessary identification, Corbett said he too was pleased with the decision.
“I am pleased that the state Supreme Court recognized that we have been working hard, and in good faith, to implement the voter ID law,” he said in a statement to reporters. “My administration will continue to work hard to ensure that Pennsylvania voters know about this new law, and help them obtain the proper identification to vote on Election Day.”
While saying he too was pleased with the ruling, which he hailed as “tentative victory,” the head of the state chapter of the NAACP, J. Whyatt Mondesire, urged voters to continue their efforts to get the state-required identity card.
“The NAACP and other leading organizations will continue to provide resources to those in need of the potential voter photo ID ahead of Election Day,” he said.