On Sept. 18, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sent the state’s controversial voter identification (ID) law back to a lower court for a “supplemental opinion,” leaving the law in a temporary limbo. Claiming they would tolerate “no voter disenfranchisement,” the majority decision by three Republican judges and one Democrat gave Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. until Oct. 2 to decide whether the state has sufficient time to accommodate prospective voters who presently lack the required ID.
Some have labeled the higher court’s split 4-2 decision as a victory for opponents of the law. A 3-3 split decision would have resulted in the law being upheld. However, concerns continue over whether people will have time to comply if the law is ultimately upheld. Pennsylvania law requires new voters to register by Oct. 9 in order to vote in November.
Many fear the higher court’s decision only adds more confusion to waters already muddied by conflicting policies issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which has been charged with issuing the new ID. Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, one of the two dissenting Supreme Court judges who criticized their colleagues for not directly blocking the law, stated, “There is ample evidence of disarray in the record. … The eyes of the nation are upon us, and this court has chosen to punt rather than to act.” (philly.com, Sept. 19)
Just days before the court ruling, hundreds rallied in Philadelphia against the law that many see as a racist attempt to disenfranchise over a million Pennsylvania voters — predominantly people of color, who are poor, elderly and live in urban areas, and who are least likely to have drivers’ licenses or passports. Similar rallies have taken place across the state since the law was passed in March 2012 under Gov. Tom Corbett and a Republican-dominated state legislature.
Under the guise that it was intended to prevent “wide-spread” voter “fraud,” the new law requires voters to produce a photo ID with a current expiration date in order to vote in November. For those who lack a Pennsylvania driver’s license or U.S. passport, the PennDoT claims it will issue ID cards — providing individuals produce original birth certificates and Social Security cards.
An analysis of driving records earlier this year found that 9 percent of voters statewide, or 758,939 individuals, could not be found in the PennDoT database. The ACLU charged that an additional 500,000 registered voters have expired PennDoT cards that would be rejected by poll watchers. In August, the ACLU, challenging the law as a 21st-century poll tax, requested an injunction to keep the law from going into effect, which Judge Simpson denied on Aug. 15.
One day after the higher court’s ruling, a study released by the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group reported that at least 28,500 students from more than 15 colleges will not be able to use their existing school IDs to vote in Pennsylvania in November because the IDs lack an expiration date. While many of the state’s nearly 100 colleges and universities are issuing new student IDs or distributing expiration-date stickers, the campuses in the PennPIRG study planned no changes.
A study from a University of Washington professor estimates that 37 percent of eligible Pennsylvania voters are unaware of the new law and another 13 percent mistakenly think they have acceptable IDs.