In Pennsylvania, voter ID law faces last crucial challenge before Election Day
A sign at the entrance of a polling station in East Greenwich, R.I., advises voters that identification is required, Tuesday, April 24, 2012. Officials say they're seeing only a trickle of voters in Rhode Island as the state holds its presidential primary. Polling supervisors are seen at a table, behind, as a voter, right, enters the polling place. / AP Photo/Steven Senne
(CBS News) Pennsylvania's controversial voter ID law faces its last court test before November's election on Thursday, as the state Supreme Court begins hearing arguments over whether or not voters in the state should be required to present valid photo identification at the voting booth.
The lawsuit, brought by the Advancement Project and the American Civil Liberties Union, challenges the lower Commonwealth Court's ruling last month, which determined the new voter ID law could stand for the upcoming election less than two months from now.
"There are hundreds of thousands of voters in Pennsylvania who may be denied the right to vote... and are finding it impossible to get proper ID," Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, said of the appeal.
In a friend of the court brief submitted to the court in defense of the law, the conservative group Judicial Watch wrote, "[The Pennsylvania General Assembly] has not caused anyone to be disenfranchised. Nor has it changed the qualifications set forth in the Pennsylvania Constitution. Rather it has maintained and promoted free and equal elections."
The lower court rejected the initial challenger's argument, deciding that the law does not place an undue burden on voters.
"I am not convinced any qualified elector need be disenfranchised," Judge Robert Simpson wrote in his August 15 decision. He added, "based on the availability of absentee voting, provisional ballots and opportunities for judicial relief for those with special relief for those with special hardships, I am not convinced... [Pennsylvanians] will not have their votes counted."
The issue became embroiled in legal and political battles after the Pennsylvania legislature approved the measure without Democratic support and after Governor Tom Corbett signed it into law in March.
Opponents say the law disenfranchises voters, especially minority and elderly voters, who are less likely to possess state-issued photo identification. Proponents of the law say photo identification is a necessary measure to prevent voter fraud.
As opponents challenge the law in court, Democrats have questioned the political motivations driving it and other similar laws across the country. The Pennsylvania legislation came under particular scrutiny in June after Republican Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania's House Majority Leader, suggested that it aimed to benefit Mitt Romney's electoral prospects this November, telling fellow Republicans at a State committee meeting that it would "allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."
The state of Pennsylvania estimated that 758,000 people lack necessary identification to vote. The state-issued ID must include a photograph and expiration date. To obtain an ID, a citizen must present a social security card, birth certificate or proof of citizenship, and two bills with a current address. People, including the homeless, without two bills in their name can obtain an ID if they bring with them a person who can verify his or her residence or shelter.
As of September 10, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Secretary of State's office has issued 7,800 voter IDs, according the Secretary of State's office.
With 55 days remaining until Election Day, opponents of the law say that is far too few from the hundreds of thousands who lack proper ID.
The state of Pennsylvania has already begun a large voter outreach effort to inform voters of the new ID requirement. Spokesperson Mathew Keeler said the state has been notifying voters through mailings, phone calls and television advertisements.
The outreach efforts are costing about $5 million dollars, according to Keeler, and the state is using federal funds allocated under the Help American Vote Act to pay for it.
"Despite all those efforts, the state's projection is that they will issue a few thousand ID's. Even they don't believe they're going to be successful," Walczak said.
Pennsylvania is one of seventeen states to adopt a photo ID laws, but five states have been unable to enact them due to legal challenges or denial by the Justice Department.
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