By Marc Levy
HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s divisive voter identification requirement became the latest of its kind to get pushback from the courts ahead of Election Day, delivering a hard-fought victory to Democrats who said it was a ploy to defeat President Barack Obama and other opponents who said it would prevent the elderly and minorities from voting.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said in his ruling that he was concerned by the state’s stumbling efforts to create a photo ID that is easily accessible to voters and that he could not rely on the assurances of government officials at this late date that every voter would be able to get a valid ID.
If it stands, it is good news for Obama’s chances in Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s biggest electoral college prizes, unless Republicans and the tea party groups that backed the law find a way to use it to motivate their supporters and possibly independents.
Simpson based his decision on guidelines given to him two weeks ago by the state’s high court to determine whether the state had made photo IDs easily accessible to voters who needed them. It could easily be the final word on the law just five weeks before the Nov. 6 election, especially since Gov. Tom Corbett, who had championed the law, said he was leaning against appealing to the state Supreme Court.
“This decision is a big win for voters in Pennsylvania,” said Witold J. Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which helped challenge the law.
Simpson’s ruling would not stop the law from going into full effect next year, though he could still decide later to issue a permanent injunction as part of the ongoing legal challenge to the law’s constitutionality.
The 6-month-old law — among the nation’s toughest — is one of many that has passed a Republican-controlled state Legislature since the last presidential election, and has sparked a divisive debate over voting rights ahead of the contest between Obama, a Democrat, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, for Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes.
It was already a political lightning rod when a top state Republican lawmaker boasted to a GOP dinner in June that the ID requirement “is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”
The law is one of about 20 tougher voter identification laws passed predominantly by Republican-controlled state Legislatures since the last presidential election. However, several states’ laws are not strict in their requirement for a photo ID, several others were vetoed by Democratic governors and still others — such as in Texas and Wisconsin — were held up by courts.
It’s not clear how the laws could affect the presidential election, or even if they will, considering that the toughest identification laws are not taking effect this year in presidential battleground states.
“The thing I’m concerned about is that it will lead to confusion on Election Day,” said Nathan Persily, who teaches election law at Columbia University. “There will be spotty enforcement … and there could be lines and slow voting as a result.”
In Pennsylvania, election workers will still be allowed to ask voters for a valid photo ID, but people without it can use a regular voting machine in the polling place and would not have to cast a provisional ballot or prove their identity to election officials afterward.
Jon M. Greenbaum of The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said he believes the Pennsylvania case will set an important principle going forward, that voter identification laws cannot disenfranchise voters.
Others, such as Michael J. Pitts, who teaches election law at Indiana University, said Pennsylvania’s decision is distinctive because of the court’s discomfort with changing the voter identification rules so close to an election.
The plaintiffs included the Homeless Advocacy Project, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Simpson’s ruling came after listening to two days of testimony about the state’s eleventh-hour efforts to make it easier to get a valid photo ID. He also heard about long lines and ill-informed clerks at driver’s license centers and identification requirements that made it hard for some registered voters to get a state-issued photo ID.
Pennsylvania, traditionally considered a presidential battleground state, is showing a persistent lead for Obama in independent polls. Pollsters had said Pennsylvania’s identification requirement could mean that fewer people ended up voting and, in the past, lower turnouts have benefited Republicans in Pennsylvania.
But Democrats have used their opposition to the law as a rallying cry, turning it into a valuable tool to motivate volunteers and campaign contributions while other opponents of the law, including labor unions, good government groups, the NAACP, AARP and the League of Women Voters, hold voter education drives and protest rallies.
The law was a signature accomplishment of Corbett and Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature. Republicans, long suspicious of ballot-box stuffing in the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia, justified it as a bulwark against any potential election fraud.
Every Democratic lawmaker voted against it. Some accused Republicans of using old-fashioned Jim Crow tactics to steal the White House from Obama. Other opponents said it would make it harder for young adults, minorities, the elderly, poor and disabled to vote.