Strict New Pennsylvania Voter-ID Law Challenged in State Court

A tough new voter-identification law in Pennsylvania is in state court and the national spotlight this month, under challenge from opponents who say it's a Republican scheme that violates the state constitution and disenfranchises thousands of voters.

The law is just one in a wave of legislation sweeping the country aimed at tightening voter regulation through restrictions on early voting and voter registration. Many states already require some method of identification to vote, but Pennsylvania and nine others recently have passed laws requiring specific kinds of government-issued IDs. These new rules are driving a furious debate over voting rights as the presidential election looms, with experts saying that turnout--especially in swing states such as Pennsylvania--could decide a close race.

Advocates for the Pennsylvania law say the new rules are necessary to combat voter fraud. In opening arguments at the state courthouse in Harrisburg last week, Patrick Cawley, a senior deputy to Republican Attorney General Linda Kelly, said that "widespread disenfranchisement will not happen." He also said that "nothing could be more rational" than requiring a voter to show a photo ID--the same argument advocates of the law have been making across the nation.

Pennsylvania used to require only that people voting for the first time, or the first time in a new polling place, show a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or other form of ID. The new law requires photo ID such as a passport, driver's license, state-issued non-driver ID, or a student, military, or employee ID; all the photo IDs must have expiration dates.

Opponents worry that the law disproportionately affects minorities, the poor, the elderly, and students, all of whom may lack the specific type of ID required --as well as the money, time, and legal documents necessary to obtain it. Most states require official documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards in order to obtain the voter ID, and the ID itself usually costs $10 to $20.

Some Democrats, in fact, say that the laws are intended to rig elections in the GOP's favor. Those fears were reinforced recently when Republican Mike Turzai, the Pennsylvania House's majority leader, declared at a Republican State Committee meeting: "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania--done."

Nationwide, a full 25 percent of all voting-age African-Americans do not have the photo ID to participate in the upcoming election under requirements like Pennsylvania's. In Pennsylvania alone, according to NAACP Washington Bureau Director Hilary Shelton, 758,000 voters do not have the necessary ID--and these people are disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities, disabled persons, and women.

Just in Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, 186,830 registered voters--18 percent of the city's total--do not have a Pennsylvania Transportation Department-issued ID.

Shelton called the legislation "convenient" in Pennsylvania because it disenfranchises many of the same people who helped Barack Obama become president in 2008. In recent election cycles, Pennsylvania has been a key swing state. He added that the argument that stricter rules are necessary to reduce voter fraud is unfounded, because there have been zero cases of in-person voter fraud in the state.

"It really is a solution looking for a problem, but one that has such a disparate effect on racial and ethnic minorities that the collateral damage actually far exceeds any problem they are trying to solve," Shelton said.

Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, declined to comment on the legal proceedings. But he said the legal assumption is that the statute is constitutional, so the burden is on the challengers to show it would cause "immediate and irreparable harm unless the court acts now." In a brief from the office, the defenders argue that there is ample time before the election for eligible voters to obtain the necessary ID.

Opponents of the Pennsylvania law and similar laws across the nation are opting to wage the battle in state rather than federal courthouses because of specific guarantees in state constitutions that they argue are violated by the new requirements. In addition to the state case, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division announced that it is investigating whether the new law violates the federal Voting Rights Act.