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Judge keeps Pennsylvania voter ID law alive

Updated at 1:08 p.m. ET

(CBS News) In a decision that could bear a direct impact on the presidential race, a state judge Wednesday upheld Pennsylvania's new photo ID law, which would require all registered voters to produce a state-issued or state-sanctioned photo ID at the polls in order to be able to cast a ballot this November. 

Contrary to arguments brought by opponents of the new law, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, in Harrisburg, Pa., said he did not believe that "disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable."

In a 68-page decision, Simpson wrote, "The photo ID a reasonable, non-discriminatory, non-severe burden when viewed in the broader context of the widespread use of photo ID in daily life. The Commonwealth's asserted interest in protecting public confidence in elections is a relevant and legitimate state interest sufficiently weighty to justify the burden." 

The court challenge to the new law was brought by a group of plaintiffs who alleged the new law was an unfair burden and that the cost in dollars and time to acquire the documents to get the photo ID were akin to an unconstitutional poll tax. 

The lead plaintiff was Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year-old Philadelphian who has never had a driver's license. 

Applewhite has been voting since the 1940s, but her Social Security card will no longer be adequate proof of ID, and her birth certificate is not in her legal name. 

Pa. voter ID law on trial
Pennsylvania voter ID law case draws to a close 

"I don't think it's fair. I don't think should have to have a piece of paper to vote," Applewhite said in a recent interview with CBS News. "I think it should be my right to vote." 

Another plaintiff, Bea Bookler, 94, testified at the trial that she was too infirm to travel to a driver's license center to get an ID. 

"I will be unable to vote," Bookler told CBS News in a recent interview. "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 photo ID." 

Simpson found Bookler could vote by absentee ballot. With his ruling -- though it will be appealed to the state Supreme Court -- Pennsylvania becomes the biggest presidential "battleground" state with a new photo ID law. It is one of 10 states to adopt such laws in the past two years in the name of stopping voter fraud. But CBS News surveyed all 10 of those states and can report found the number of voter fraud convictions is very rare: fewer than 70 voter fraud convictions in the past decade among 40 million registered voters in those states. In Pennsylvania, for example, there have been no convictions for voter fraud on state or federal charges in the past decade.

new study funded by the Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, which surveyed all 50 states, found that instances of voter impersonation fraud across the country are "infinitesimal" -- about one instance of voter impersonation fraud for every 15 million registered voters in the U.S. 

"Pennsylvania's voter ID law erects an unequal barrier to voting for hundreds of thousands of eligible voters, disproportionately blocking veterans, seniors and people of color," said Judith Browne Dianis, an attorney with the Advancement Project, which represents Applewhite. 

Critics of photo voter ID laws contend they will suppress the votes of minorities and young voters who turned out in record numbers for President Obama in 2008. Pennsylvania's state House majority leader, Mike Turzai, inflamed those suspicions when he boasted at a Republican conference in June: 

"Voter ID -- which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania - done!" 

No one has been able to say for certain how many voters would be directly affected by Pennsylvania's law.

Downplaying the burden in his decision, Simpson opined that around only 1 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania lack a photo ID. Still, that would be 82,723 of the state's 8,272,302 voters registered as of Monday, according to the state Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation. 

By the best prior estimate of Pennsylvania officials, several hundred thousand registered voters don't have an acceptable photo ID, such as a driver's license. The Pennsylvania Department of State announced last month that nearly 759,000 registered voters, or 9 percent, lacked a driver's license or state-issued ID. However, the state also said 22 percent of those voters, or 167,000, were considered inactive voters for not having voted in at least five years and were presumed to have left the state. 

Department of State Spokesman Ron Ruman told CBS News that many of the 759,000 people were eligible to vote but their names were spelled differently in the voter registration and motor vehicle records - a discrepancy, he said, poll workers would be told to ignore. Many other registered voters could pass the state's photo ID requirement with IDs issued by a colleges, the military, government employers or even nursing homes, he said. 

"I am pleased Judge Simpson affirmed the constitutionality of the voter ID law. This law will reinforce the principle of one person, one vote. By giving us a reliable way to verify the identity of each voter, the voter ID law will enhance confidence in our elections," Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, whose department oversees elections in Pennsylvania, said in a written statement. "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." Pennsylvania is one of 10 states to adopt a photo voter ID law in the past two years. Pennsylvania's law permits a registered voter lacking an acceptable or government-issued photo ID to cast a provisional ballot, a provision Simpson cited as important in his decision. P

rovisional ballots in Pennsylvania will be counted after Election Day only if the voter subsequently proves his or her identity within six days to county election officials with an acceptable photo ID.

"No one will be denied the right to vote," said Shannon Royer, the Pennsylvania's deputy secretary of state. The state has launched a $5 million outreach effort, including an ad campaign, to educate voters about the law.

Royer told CBS News that voters can now obtain a free state photo ID on the same day from any of more than 70 Department of Transportation offices around the state. The state has issued 4,200 such IDs since the law passed in March, Royer said. He also said a birth certificate will no longer be necessary and election officials would accept two proofs of residence and Social Security number as proof of identification.

Paula Reid, Abigail Collins and Rosalie Forman contributed to this story.