HARRISBURG - A Commonwealth Court judge denied a bid by civil rights groups to block the new voter identification law from taking effect, delivering a first-round victory to Gov. Corbett and legislative Republicans who pushed the measure through this spring saying it was needed to prevent voter fraud.
In a 70-page decision deloibvered Wednesday morning, Judge Robert E. Simpson said the plaintiffs did not establish that "disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable."
Simpson also said plaintiffs did not prove that denying an injunction would cause "greater injury," and instead noted that halting the process now would interfere with election machinery now in motion to prepare for the Nov. 6 vote.
Reaction was swift from all quarters in this closely watched case. Corbett and Republican elected officials praised the judge for upholding a law they say will protect honest voters, while Democrats expressed deep disappointment, saying the law would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters while also vowing to step up their campaign to ensure all voters have proper ID.
On that score, at least, they found common ground with Corbett. Now that the law has been upheld, he said in a prepared statement, "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."
The American Civil Liberties Union, among other groups representing eight plaintiffs, several of whom testified they were denied ID for various reasons and would be unable to vote in November, said it would file an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Thursday and seek an expedited ruling.
Penda Hair, an elections law lawyer for the Advancement Project, a civil rights group which also argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, called the ruling "a huge setback for the right to vote"
"It's contrary to core American values and sadly takes us back to a dark place in our country's history," said Hair. "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."
In his ruling, Simpson said the plaintiffs' lawyers "did an excellent job of 'putting a face' " on voters who face burdens because of the new law's photo ID requirements.
"At the end of the day, however, I do not have the luxury of deciding this issue based on my sympathy for the witnesses or my esteem for counsel. Rather, I must analyze the law, and apply it," he wrote.
The ACLU quoted the lead plaintiff in the case, 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite of Philadelphia, as saying she could not believe the ruling.
"Too many people have fought for the right to vote to have it taken away like this," the group quoted her as saying. Applewhite, who has said she once marched with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has struggled to get the required forms of ID because she lost most of her identification cards several years ago to a purse snatcher.
"All I want is to be able to vote this November like I always have," she was quoted as saying Wednesday. "This law is just ridiculous."
Reaction to the Simpson ruling split along party lines - much like the voting in the Republican-controlled General Assembly that enacted the voter ID legislation in March.
Corbett and Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, whose office oversees elections, promised to focus their attention on providing citizens with the ID they'll need to vote in November. "We will continue our outreach efforts to make sure all legal Pennsylvania voters know about the law, and know how to get a free ID to vote if needed," the governor's statement said.
"The integrity of each and every valid vote was upheld today," said a statement issued by House Majority leader Michael Turzai (R., Allegheny).
Simpson singled out Turzai in the opinion for having made what the judge called "disturbing, tendentious statements" in June when he told a Republican State Committee meeting that the new law "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."
In his statement Wednesday, Turzai said the law "will be implemented in a non-partisan, even-handed manner by Commonwealth agencies, and qualified voters will have their votes counted."
President Obama's campaign issued a statement saying it would continue to include the voter ID law in its volunteer training, voter registration and education activities. "Now more than ever it is important that the Commonwealth follow through on its plan to make available free IDs to any voter who man need them," said Jennifer Austin, the campaign's Pennsylvania spokeswoman.
Democratic elected officials - federal, state and local - continued to describe the voter ID law as an effort to suppress their side's votes.
They questioned whether PennDOT could meet the demand for new voter ID cards - requiring registered voters to provide only their birthdates, Social Security numbers and proofs of residency - that are supposed to become available before the end of August.
"This is going to be a catastrophe if it's upheld by the Supreme Court," said state Sen. Daylin Leach, (D., Montgomery) who's proposed a repeal of the voter ID law, but reported that no Republicans will sign onto his efforts.