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BREAKING: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Puts Voter ID Law In Jeopardy

By Ian Millhiser on September 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm

"BREAKING: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Puts Voter ID Law In Jeopardy"

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Last month, a Pennsylvania trial judge upheld that state’s Voter ID law, in an opinion that relied at least in part on Nineteenth Century precedent which claimed that vote suppressing laws may be permissible to protect against ‘rogues,’ ‘strumpets,’ and ‘wandering arabs.’ Today, the state supreme court vacated that order, noting that the law is not living up to its own promises of ensuring voters will have access to ID:
[T]he Law contemplates that the primary form of photo identification to be used by voters is a Department of Transportation (PennDOT) driver’s license or the non-driver equivalent provided under Section 1510(b) of the Vehicle Code. Furthermore, the Law specifically requires that – notwithstanding provisions of Section 1510(b) relating to the issuance and content of the cards – PennDOT shall issue them at no cost . . . . As such, the Law establishes a policy of liberal access to Section 1510(b) identification cards.

However, as implementation of the Law has proceeded, PennDOT – apparently for good reason – has refused to allow such liberal access. Instead, the Department continues to vet applicants for Section 1510(b) cards through an identification process that Commonwealth officials appear to acknowledge is a rigorous one. Generally, the process requires the applicant to present a birth certificate with a raised seal (or a document considered to be an equivalent), a social security card, and two forms of documentation showing current residency. The reason why PennDOT will not implement the Law as written is that the Section 1510(b) driver’s license equivalent is a secure form of identification, which may be used, for example, to board commercial aircraft.

The Department of State has realized, and the Commonwealth parties have candidly conceded, that the Law is not being implemented according to its terms. . . . Overall, 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 in light of the serious operational constraints faced by the executive branch. Given this state of affairs, we are not satisfied with a mere predictive judgment based primarily on the assurances of government officials, even though we have no doubt they are proceeding in good faith.

Today’s decision is not a victory against voter ID, yet. The state justices merely “return[ed] the matter to the Commonwealth Court to make a present assessment of the actual availability of the alternate identification cards on a developed record in light of the experience since the time the cards became available.” Nevertheless, the supreme court also makes clear that the lower court must suspend the law if “liberal access” to voter ID is not ensured, or if voter disenfranchisement will result in the 2012 election.

Advancement Project Co-Director Penda D. Hair called today’s decision “a big step in the right direction.” It appears much more likely today than it did yesterday that Pennsylvania’s voter ID law will not be in effect this November.

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