In reversal, judge blocks Pa. voter ID

Kathryn Whitecotton covers her personal information as she shows her Pennsylvania driver's license and her address update card outside the PennDOT Driver's License Center in Butler, Pa., Sept. 26, 2012.
AP Photo

Just five weeks before the November general election, a Pennsylvania judge reversed himself and blocked the state's strict voter identification law.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday against the new law. He said that election workers can ask voters for ID, but photo ID will not be required to vote in the upcoming election.

Tuesday's decision is a sharp contrast to Simpson's ruling in August when he refused to issue an injunction and upheld the law. In that 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."

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

Opponents appealed his decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. After hearing arguments from both sides, the Supreme Court returned the case to Simpson and ordered him to "reassess" his ruling based on the availability of ID cards and in light of "expedited" efforts put forth by the Pennsylvania government.

Simpson's decision may not be the final word on this case. It can be appealed back to the state Supreme Court, which is next scheduled to meet Oct. 15 in Pittsburgh.

The voter ID law was signed into law by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in March. The law generally requires voters to present a photo identification card in order to cast a ballot. Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that have passed ID laws in the past two years.

Opponents argue the law could create "a very large problem" for as many as half a million voters in Pennsylvania. They argue that a disproportionate number of those impacted would be racial minorities, the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

In Tuesday's opinion, Simpson admitted that he might have been mistaken in his earlier assessment.

"I expected more photo IDs to have been issued by this time," he said.

At the hearings, evidence was presented that between 9,300 and 9,500 Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) IDs for voting had been issued in addition to between 1,300 and 1,350 Department of State (DOS) IDs.

"Consequently, I am not still convinced in my predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement ... Under these circumstances, I am obliged to enter a preliminary injunction," Simpson said in his ruling Tuesday.

During last week's hearing, he hinted that he would block at least part of the law.

"I'm giving you a heads-up," he told lawyers in the case. "I think it is a possibility that there could be an injunction here."

In briefings filed Friday, the government argued that there have been reasonable voter education efforts, available means for procuring identification, and reasonable time for implementation.

Per the judge's order, the parties had to offer suggestions on what kind of injunction would be appropriate if the judge was to grant one.

The government suggested that the court could do away with the requirement that electors apply for a PennDOT ID prior to applying for a free DOS ID, and they also suggested a waiver for anyone who shows up at the polls without an ID.

Under the original law, any voter rejected for lack of ID could still cast a provisional ballot and then produce an approved ID within six days to have their vote counted. On Friday, the government argued that the court could allow those filling provisional ballots to also file a form affirming that they could not get a required ID before that six-day deadline, which would allow their vote to be counted.

The petitioners said in their brief that the only proper injunction would be to "enjoin any type of enforcement of the photo identification requirements at the upcoming election for in-person voters." After the election, they argued, the court can determine what the next step should be for enforcing the law.