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Pennsylvania voter ID law back in court: Can it be enforced?

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of the voter ID law, but challengers are asking whether enforcing it will disenfranchise a large number of voters in the state.

Pennsylvania’s photo ID law returned to state court on Monday, this time for a trial on whether the new measure can be enforced by state officials without disenfranchising a significant number of voters in the state.

Prior to the presidential election last fall, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the photo ID law but raised questions about whether certain voters might find it difficult to obtain the required government-issued ID in time to vote.

The courts blocked strict enforcement of the law until after the November presidential election. The injunction was later extended to include Pennsylvania’s May 21 primary.

Now the law is once again under review. Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley is conducting a two-week trial in Harrisburg, Pa., to examine whether the law can now take full effect or should continue to be blocked – or struck down entirely.

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A lawyer for those challenging the law told the court that the new requirement threatened to make voting a privilege rather than a right, according to the Associated Press.

In response, a lawyer for the state said the photo ID requirement was not unreasonably burdensome.

The voter ID law, passed by the Republican-controlled legislature in March 2012, requires all voters to present government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot in Pennsylvania.

If the law is upheld, Pennsylvania would become one of 15 states that have passed laws requiring would-be voters to present photo identification before casting a ballot.

A number of voting rights and civil liberties groups challenged the state statute in a lawsuit filed last year, arguing that its burdens would fall disproportionately on the elderly, the poor, and minorities.

Those challenging the law, including the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, argue that the photo ID requirement will lead to the disenfranchisement of “at least tens of thousands of voters.”

“The gap between the number of people with IDs that can be used to vote and registered voters remains unconstitutionally and unconscionably large,” their pre-trial brief says.

Citing state statistics, they estimate that 300,000 to 400,000 registered Pennsylvania voters lack the type of ID required to vote under the photo ID law.

Since the lawsuit and resulting controversy last year, the state promised to issue a free ID to anyone needing it to vote. But only 16,700 such free IDs have been issued.

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“By any measure that leaves tens of thousands – and likely hundreds of thousands – of voters without identification,” the challengers’ brief says. “There is no basis to believe that the gap will ever be closed.”

Critics of the law maintain that it was an attempt by Republican lawmakers to suppress votes among the poor as well as racial and ethnic minorities, constituencies that generally vote for Democrats.

Republicans counter that the voter ID law is not an extraordinary burden for potential voters and that it is justified as a safeguard against voting fraud.

The state’s brief in defense of the statute notes that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the photo ID law last year.

The only remaining issue is how the law can be implemented consistent with legal and constitutional requirements, the brief says.

The state is providing free voter ID to any registered voter facing a special burden under the new law, said Senior Deputy Attorney General Timothy Keating in the state’s brief.

The ID law does not violate the state constitution’s requirement of free and fair elections, he said, because the requirement applies to all voters equally. The fact that some voters may be more inconvenienced than others in obtaining the proper ID does not render the process unequal, he wrote.

“Disenfranchisement – the wrong that is sought to be avoided – results from systematic and insurmountable impediments to exercising the right to vote,” Mr. Keating said, not from mere inconvenience.

Keating added that five of the seven original plaintiffs in the case last year have been removed from the litigation because they have be able to obtain valid photo identification despite their earlier complaints.

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The challengers insist the problem is still pervasive.

“The photo ID law imposes a new requirement that hundreds of thousands cannot meet at all, or can meet only with severe burden,” Washington Lawyer Michael Rubin said in a statement before the trial.

“The law violates the right to vote and cannot stand,” he said.