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Voter ID: Another turn of the spinning wheel

Yet another legal go-round on voter ID in Pennsylvania is underway; but it’s an issue that isn’t going away.

VOTER ID is an issue akin to gay marriage, abortion or guns: It hinges on rights, it's vastly divisive and it isn't going away.

This week we have the fourth, but surely not the last, legal tussle over whether Pennsylvanians need a photo ID to vote.

Current law says they do, but current law isn't enforced.

Whether it will be is the subject of a new trial - expected to last more than a week - that began yesterday in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg.

Opening arguments sounded the same as past arguments.

The state says the law is constitutional and easy to comply with.

Challengers say it's unconstitutional as written and too hard for too many to comply with.

It's an issue across the nation.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says 11 states require photos; the issue is pending in seven more, including Pennsylvania. Another 19 states have some form of ID requirement.

There was a settlement offer here. The state offered to delay implementation until 2015 and spend more time and money on voter education if the case was dropped.

(The state last year launched a $5 million taxpayer-funded TV and billboard campaign on the issue.)

The offer was rejected.

Maybe it was made to get the case and its appeals out of the limelight while Gov. Corbett runs for re-election.

Maybe it was rejected because any negative impact of the law would be felt most in presidential elections when turnout is higher, so delaying until the next one is no real concession.

Whatever the case, we're at it again; and with a new judge.

A judge who twice heard arguments last year, Robert (call me Robin) Simpson, is off the case at his request. A court spokesman says "we don't have a clue" why.

Um, maybe because the case is a cluster-cluck?

Simpson's replaced by Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley, who's been on the court since 1988.

Enjoy, Bernie.

The state's represented by the Attorney General's Office, the Governor's Office of General Counsel and (of course) taxpayer-funded outside counsel, the Philly firm of Drinker, Biddle & Reath - because who doesn't love billable hours on cases bound for appeals?

(Attorney General Kathleen Kane opposed implementation of the law as a candidate last year but last Friday called it constitutional.)

Opponents are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, the national civil-rights group the Advancement Project and the D.C. firm Arnold & Porter, the latter working pro bono.

Arnold & Porter's Michael Rubin noted in opening statements that the state stipulates there's no evidence of fraud and asked, "What compelling government interest is served by making it harder for hundreds of thousands of people to vote?"

Senior Deputy Attorney General Tim Keating said the law is "not unduly burdensome," that anyone who's registered and wants to vote can get a photo ID and that the nation's highest court already upheld such a law.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a 2008 Indiana case ruled states can require voters to produce photo IDs.

The Pennsylvania case turns on implementation.

So far it's been a comedy of errors involving shifting requirements and judicial ping-pong.

Corbett signed the law in March 2012. Last summer, Judge Simpson denied a request for a preliminary injunction. The state Supreme Court heard an appeal in September but returned the case to Simpson. In October, after another trial, Simpson issued a partial injunction allowing November voting without ID, later extended to 2013 primary elections.

So now state "leadership," unable to implement popular reforms such as liquor privatization, needed reforms such as pension and transportation fixes, or sought-after reforms such as stopping NCAA Penn State sanctions or privatizing the lottery, seeks to convince a court it can implement "election reform."

In other words, the spinning wheels taxpayers pay for spin some more on an issue that isn't going away.