Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson Jr.’s ruling on Aug. 15 upholding Pennsylvania’s controversial voter ID law, which requires Pennsylvania residents to show state-issued photo IDs to vote, generated a variety of responses from area residents and political leaders.
Supporters of the voter ID law claim that it will reduce voter fraud while opponents of the law argue that it puts up unconstitutional barrier to the fundamental right to vote and threatens to disenfranchise as many as a million registered voters in November unless the Supreme Court blocks its implementation.
Public Interest Law Center Attorney Ben Geffen said his group was “disappointed by the ruling” but noted that it would file an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He said the lawyers for the plaintiffs were optimistic that the Supreme Court would hear the appeal and decide to block enforcement of the law in time for November’s election.
He pointed out that the state acknowledged during the litigation that it could not offer any examples of in-person voter fraud.
“It’s important to remember that this law is a solution to a non-existing problem,” Geffen said. “Voter fraud in-person simply doesn’t happen.”
In Simpson ‘s 68-page ruling, he called the requirement to show state-approved identification “a minor change” to the election code. He said if a voter is rejected for not having the proper ID, the voter still has the option of casting a provisional ballot. For their vote to be counted they must provide an approved ID within six days.
In making his opinion, he wrote that the plaintiffs’’ lawyers “did an excellent job of ‘putting a face’” on those disenfranchised by the law, but that he didn’t have the “luxury of deciding the issue based on my sympathy for the witnesses.”
Reaction to the ruling
“The right to vote is our most precious right, and it trumps all others,” said U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Pa) in a statement on Aug. 15. “That should be self-evident at this time in our history. But today’s ruling in the Commonwealth Court places this pre-eminent right at the mercy of unreasonable burdens on our senior citizens, our college students, on minorities, on those who don’t have driver’s licenses, and those who may have been born in another state where life-cycle record-keeping is, or was, unreliable. The plaintiffs, who recognize all these failings, will rightly and promptly appeal.
“The bottom line is that we have 85 days left to make sure that every eligible voter is prepared to vote in November, said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, director of outreach and program evaluation at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians in a statement. “We want every eligible Pennsylvania to be able to cast a vote – that means each person must have a valid photo ID.”
Karen Buck, executive director of the Senior Law Center, a senior advocacy group, said her organization is holding free clinics to assist voters who need help in getting an acceptable photo ID and urged voters to act now.
“It will be an unpleasant surprise to learn that you can’t use the voting machines to vote for the president because you don’t have the right type of ID,” Buck said.
“This is a very sad day for the registered voters in my district whose votes are at risk because they lack the required identification,” said Sen. LeAnna Washington (D-4th Dist.). “The courts are supposed to be non-partisan and protect the rights of the citizens, yet this was a partisan decision made without proof of voter fraud in Pennsylvania.
Washington encouraged her constituents not to get discouraged by this ruling. Instead, she urged them to “take action as soon as possible” to ensure that they can vote in November. Washington, who helped to launch a Voter Identification Education Initiative, said she and her staff “have been working tirelessly” to help residents obtain the forms they need to get a state-approved ID.
“It is imperative that the public is aware of the new law and that no voter is turned away on Election Day,” she said.
“Until there is a final ruling, we can not stop urging voters to get the photo ID they will need to vote,” said John Jordan, director of civic engagement for the Pennsylvania NAACP.
Governor Tom Corbett released the following response to the Commonwealth Court ruling on voter identification on August 15:
“Now that the court has upheld the constitutionality of the law, we can continue to focus our attention on ensuring that every Pennsylvania citizen who wants to vote has the identification necessary to make sure their vote counts.”
Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, whose department oversees the elections in Pennsylvania, said she was pleased that “Judge Simpson affirmed the constitutionality of the voter ID law.”
“This law will enforce the principle of one person, one vote,” Aichele said. “By giving us a reliable way to verify the identity of each voter, the voter ID law will enhance confidence in our elections.”
She added that the state would continue its outreach efforts to guarantee that “all legal Pennsylvania voters know about the law and how to get a free ID to vote if needed.”
Chestnut Hill resident Bob Previdi, a volunteer for the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, said the ruling was a “very big disappointment.”
“There is a huge assumption that the state’s outreach efforts are going to work and they have barely begun,” Previdi said. “The state went to court and clearly stated that there is no evidence of fraud. So, what’s the hurry? Why don’t we make sure every voter who is already registered gets the opportunity to vote?”
Previdi said one of the difficulties of educating the public about the Voter ID law is that the state keeps “changing the rules.” He added that the law was particularly “tough on the elderly.”
“The determined men and women who came to court to describe their love of this country because we can all participate through the ballot box, will simply have to wait for another day and another court to vindicate this most cherished of all rights,” said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
“This is a huge setback for the right to vote,” said Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project. “It’s contrary to core American values and sadly takes us back to a dark place in our country’s history. We hope the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will see through this and affirm that all Pennsylvania voters have a right to be heard at the ballot box.”
Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, which champions fair elections and greater voter access, said the ruling didn’t surprise him.
“In a perverse way, Simpson helped us out because the ruling helped drive more attention to the problem,” Stalberg said.
He said his organization has received more calls since the ruling.
“The biggest problem is being aware you have a problem,” Stalberg said.
Stalberg said he believed that part of what drove the decision was the judge’s statement that education efforts continue. He said he believed that the judge didn’t want “education efforts to stop and restart again” and that he wanted people to be “educated on the law so they could comply with the law.”
He said educating the public was difficult because “the state keeps changing the rules.” The handbook the organization uses to educate its speakers has been updated nine times.
“The practical reality is that what I say to you today can be wrong tomorrow,” Stalberg said.
Stalberg urged all voters who have questions about the voter ID law to call 1-866-Our-Vote or to go to www.seventy.org/voterID.
Chestnut Hill resident Joe Trinacria, 22, a student at La Salle University, said he doesn’t have an issue with the new law, adding that requiring an ID to vote “doesn’t seem like that big a hassle.”
Trinacria, who has a current driver’s license, which is a state-approved form of identification, said it made him “feel comfortable knowing that the state is taking the initiative to make sure I am who I say I am, which protects the importance of my vote.”
He said that for his generation, being required to bring an ID to vote “wouldn’t be that big a deal.”
Rebecca Dhondt, 36, of Mt. Airy called the law “a travesty” and said the ruling didn’t surprise her.
“Imagine nearly one in five voters, taxpaying, law-abiding citizens, being turned away at the polls,” said Dhondt, a volunteer. “This is what we are headed for, and anyone who doesn’t see this as modern day Jim Crow is simply not paying attention.”
Dhondt added that she thinks the law will be upheld and “utter chaos will ensue on election day.”