Ask the Experts: Pennsylvania's controversial voter ID law
October 02, 2012
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Scott Meinke, associate professor of political science, has been following Pennsylvania's voter ID law as it works its way through the court system. He weighs in on the latest developments, and what they mean for voters.
Update: On Tuesday, Oct. 2, a judge halted the enforcement of Pennsylvania's voter ID law.
Question: Can you explain the ruling, and what it means for voters this November?
A: The Commonwealth Court barred a portion of the voter ID law from going into effect in the upcoming election. Concluding that the law could not be implemented in a way that ensured no voter disenfranchisement, the judge blocked the portion of the law that requires voters without ID to complete a provisional ballot and then submit identification to have their votes counted. So under the ruling, the state can continue to ask for photo ID at the polls, but voters who do not produce ID will not be kept from voting.
The ruling may be appealed to the state Supreme Court, but if it stands, it will alleviate the problems associated with the last-minute rush to implement Pennsylvania's restrictive law. However, the judge was clear that his ruling applies only to the implementation of the law this year. It is not a ruling on the constitutionality of the ID requirement in general. The law will go into full effect after the November election, subject to further court challenges.
Question: Do you see this as a victory for opponents of the new law?
A: Politically speaking, it's a short-term victory for the law's opponents since the ruling (if it stands) removes much of what could have depressed voter participation. Even if the law survives further challenges after the election, the law's political consequences may be smaller since there will be a much longer period of time for voters to adjust to the law and for the state to implement it smoothly.
Update: On Tuesday, Sept. 18, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued a ruling that send the case back to a lower court.
Question: Please explain the ruling issued by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on Sept. 18.
Answer: Following its hearing last week on the voter ID law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a quick ruling for the court (over the dissents of two Democratic justices). In their short opinion, the court majority questioned whether state's implementation of the law was faithful to the law's requirement for "liberal access" to state-issued photo IDs. The justices acknowledged that Pennsylvania was pursuing an alternative ID option that would circumvent the very strict standards for obtaining a driver's license or official PennDOT ID, but they seemed to be skeptical about whether that option would constitute "liberal access." The Supreme Court's decision does not resolve the issue one way or the other. Instead, it orders the lower court (Commonwealth Court) to examine the current implementation of the ID options, and it dictates that the lower court should block the ID law if it finds that implementation process lacking. The Supreme Court set a deadline of October 2 for the lower court to act.
Overall, the justices appeared to be seeking better evidence about the potential disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters-they wrote that they were "not satisfied with a mere predictive judgment based primarily on the assurances of government officials." But the two dissenting justices wanted the court to act on the evidence already available and block the law now. Regardless of the direction the lower court takes, the resolution of this issue is now delayed until quite close to the November election.
Originally posted on Sept. 14, 2012
Q: What will the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania be looking at when it hears arguments about the state's new voter ID law?
Answer: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is reviewing the Commonwealth Court's initial ruling against a preliminary injunction to stop the voter ID law. Opponents of the law had asked the lower court to stop the law's implementation pending a full review of the law's constitutionality. That court refused to issue the injunction, and the Supreme Court is considering whether to reverse that decision.
The Commonwealth Court judge ruled that the law's opponents had not presented sufficient evidence to warrant an injunction against the law. He noted that the opponents had not cleared the high bar for ruling against a law on its face (rather than as it is applied once it goes into effect) and that they had not shown the irreparable harm that is required for an injunction. A key part of this ruling was the judge's decision not to subject the law to the highest level of constitutional scrutiny (so-called "strict scrutiny"), which would be used if a court determined that the law infringed on a fundamental right or discriminated against certain voters. These are the issues that we can expect the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review in its decision.
Q: What are the implications if the court allows the law to stand?
A: If the Court does not block the law, then the voter ID requirements will be in effect for the November election. The challenge is under the state constitution, so this court is likely to be the end of the line for now. In the end, some voters will be kept away by the requirement, although the estimates of how many range pretty widely (and, in fact, were at issue as a key piece of evidence in the Commonwealth Court's ruling). Although other states have experience with voter ID, Pennsylvania's law is particularly restrictive, so there is reason to think that the risk of election-day problems at the polls is greater here.
Q: Supporters say the law is vital to protecting the integrity of elections by limiting potential voter fraud. Opponents argue there's no history of voter fraud in Pennsylvania and that the law will disproportionately impact elderly, minority, low-income and young voters. Why have we seen a real push for these laws in various places around the country this year? Do you see one side's argument being stronger than the other's?
A: We are in a political environment with sharply polarized leaders at both the national and state levels. When the partisan stakes are high, it is not surprising to see attempts to use the rules to sustain or create partisan advantages, and it is hard to look at the pattern of where and how these laws have been passed and not see partisanship as an important explanation for the controversy. That's particularly an issue with laws like Pennsylvania's that aim to curb in-person voter fraud, which is both extremely rare and an improbable way to try to manipulate an election outcome. That said, it is not yet clear how much of a disparate partisan impact the law will have in practice. II Related Bucknell news story: Bucknell students can vote with ID card change
Q: Could the legal fight over this case continue to the federal level and how could the decisions of other courts impact what happens here in Pennsylvania?
A: Unlike some other state ID laws that are under review, such as in Texas and South Carolina, the court challenge in Pennsylvania has been solely under state law. Pennsylvania is not covered by the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that subject some states' new election laws to immediate federal review. If the current Pennsylvania court case is decided in favor of the state, it is still possible that further challenges would go forward after the election, and those could eventually bring in federal issues.
Although the case so far has raised only state constitutional questions, the Commonwealth Court judge relied heavily on a recent U.S. Supreme Court case upholding Indiana's voter ID law, particularly for his decision about the standard of review. Presumably the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will address that precedent as well.
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