Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules against Voter ID, for now

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has vacated a lower court ruling that had upheld the state's voter ID law, setting the stage for the law to be blocked before the November elections.

Because of evidence suggesting the state has not provided sufficient access to voter identification cards, the Court returned the case for reconsideration to lower court Judge Robert Simpson,who upheld the law last month.

"We are confronted with an ambitious effort on the part of the General Assembly to bring the new identification procedure into effect within a relatively short timeframe and an implementation process which has by no means been seamless," the court wrote in a 4-2 decision.

Although the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not throw out the voter ID law, it instructed Judge Simpson to block its implementation if he finds the state has not provided "liberal access" to voter ID cards, or if he is no longer convinced that the law will not disenfranchise voters.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Finds Implementation Flawed, with Election Drawing Near

Pennsylvania's law requires the state to provide a free voter identification card to citizens who lack the kind of ID required to vote, but the court found that Pennsylvania has not actually provided the easy access to the new ID cards required under the law -- increasing the risk that many Pennsylvanians will not be able to vote in November.

Under Homeland Security requirements, an individual can only receive a state-issued ID card from the Department of Transportation if they provide supporting documents like a birth certificate and proof of residency. These are more stringent requirements than anticipated in the voter ID legislation, which requires the state provide a voter identification card to anybody who swears they need one. Plans to provide a voter ID card not subject to Homeland Security requirements are not complete and those cards will not be ready until just shortly before the November election, and even then they may not be freely available.

As many as 800,000 people in Pennsylvania do not have the forms of ID required under the law, and only 7,200 have obtained the free voter ID cards since the law was passed. "There is little disagreement ... that the population involved includes members of some of the most vulnerable segments of our society (the elderly, disabled members of our community, and the financially disadvantaged)," the court wrote.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that Judge Simpson, who upheld the law last month, had "made a predictive judgment" that the state would provide enough education and access to free ID cards that would "ultimately be sufficient to forestall the possibility of disenfranchisement." But faced with current evidence that the alternate ID cards have not been made sufficiently available, the Supreme Court found "we are not satisfied with a mere predictive judgment based primarily on the assurances of government officials."

Like most of the 37 states that have introduced strict voter ID bills since 2011, Pennsylvania's law reflects elements of model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and was introduced by an ALEC member. In June, Rep. Mike Turzai (R), also an ALEC member, declared that voter ID "is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." As many as 800,000 people lack the forms of ID required under the law, but Barack Obama won Pennsylvania in 2008 by a little over 600,000 votes.

Future of Pennsylvania Law Unknown

"[The]Constitution has made the right to vote a right verging on the sacred, and that right should never be trampled by partisan politics," wrote Justice Seamus McCaffery in his dissent.

The two dissenting justices were from the court's liberal wing and believed evidence was sufficient to block the law outright -- at least for the 2012 elections. "I have no argument with the requirement that all Pennsylvania voters, at some reasonable point in the future, will have to present photo identification before they may cast their ballots, [but] it is clear to me that the reason for the urgency of implementing Act 18 prior to the November election is purely political," Justice McCaffery wrote.

The 4-2 majority decision showed the court's three conservatives joining with one liberal to express concern about the law's implementation. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is divided 3-3 along ideological lines, so if there had been a split decision, the lower court ruling upholding the law would have remained standing. It appears that all six justices believe the voter ID law may be constitutional for the 2016 election -- the question now is whether it can be implemented by November without disenfranchising Pennsylvanians.

In his opinion last month, Judge Simpson, a Republican, downplayed the law's impact on disadvantaged Pennsylvanians who lacked the forms of ID required under the law, reaching an outcome different from two Wisconsin courts faced with similar facts.

It remains to be seen whether he will have a change of heart in light of even more evidence that American citizens will be blocked from voting in November if the law takes effect. Judge Simpson must issue a ruling by October 2.