Pa. Supreme Court weighs voter ID arguments

(CBS News) Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments Thursday on the state's controversial new law requiring voters to present one of several specific forms of photo identification.

The court must now decide whether to stop the new voter ID requirements from taking effect with the November 6 election looming.

In an ornate courtroom on the fourth floor of Philadelphia's City Hall, opponents of the law argued that the law will disenfranchise a substantial number of Pennsylvania voters in the upcoming election.

David P. Gersch of the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter L.L.P., argued the case on behalf of the law's opponents.

"The vice is in requiring photo identification that people don't have and have a hard time getting," Gersch told the court.

Gersch argued that the law creates "a very large problem" that could impact anywhere from 100,000-500,000 voters in Pennsylvania.

"Voting is a fundamental right. The challenged law imposes significant burdens on the exercise of that right," said Gersch.

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But the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania argues that the law is a tool to detect and deter voter fraud.

"It is simply a means to establish that you are who you say you are and that you are indeed a registered voter," argued John Knorr who represented the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office.

The law requires the state government to educate voters on the new ID requirements and to also issue free ID cards to those without proper ID.

Pennsylvania officials have said they will spend $5 million on voter education and outreach to help voters get the identification they need.

Members of the gallery booed loudly when Knorr told the court, "Most people can get photo IDs quite easily."

Supreme Court Justices in Pennsylvania are elected and the six justices - three Democrats and three Republicans - peppered lawyers at the hearing with questions that frequently hinted at which way they might lean on the case.

"There will never be a point where everybody can get something the legislature requires," argued Republican Justice Michael Eakin.

Under the new law, any voter rejected for lack of ID can still cast a provisional ballot and then produce an approved ID within six days to have their vote counted.

Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, a Democrat, said the provisional ballot measure "sounds a little bit like a nightmare."

Justice Seamus McCaffery, a Democrat, elicited cheers from the gallery when he pointed out that his Supreme Court ID, which bears the signature of the Chief Justice, would not be sufficient under the new law.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson declined to issue an injunction last month in a ruling that gave rise to this appeal. In his opinion Simpson said the law "is a reasonable, non-discriminatory, non-severe burden when viewed in the broader context of the widespread use of photo ID in daily life."

In his decision Simpson relied heavily on a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a nearly identical Indiana law, which requires voters to present a photo at the polls.

The laws in both Indiana and Pennsylvania provide for provisional ballots and offer free photo IDs to qualified voter. These two accommodations have been significant in helping voter ID laws survive judicial scrutiny in several states, including Georgia and New Mexico.

Justice Todd reminded the court that the parties on both sides of this suit have previously agreed that there are currently no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania.

Bea Bookler, 94, lives in an assisted-living facility outside Philadelphia and is one of the plaintiffs named in the suit because she does not have a driver's license or any other accepted form of photo ID.

"I have voted in every presidential election and I hope to vote in every one until I die, but I am afraid I won't be able to vote in this one because I don't have a photo ID," she said.

Judge Simpson wrote that opponents of the voter ID law "did an excellent job of 'putting a face' to those burdened by this new requirement," but he does not "have the luxury of deciding this issue based on my sympathy for the witnesses."

The outcome of Thursday's hearing could have significant consequences to the November elections as opponents of the law argue that it disproportionately affects racial minorities and other groups that favor president Obama.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett promises, "We will continue our outreach efforts to make sure all legal Pennsylvania voters know about the law, and know how to get a free ID to vote if needed."

There is no official deadline for the court to rule after Thursday's hearing, but a court official tells CBS News that the Court plans to rule quickly.

  • Paula Reid

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