As the battle over Pennsylvania's controversial voter-ID law heads back to court, Montgomery County's Democratic-controlled government lobbed its own grenade into the partisan fracas Thursday.
Starting next month, the county will issue its own poll-ready photo IDs to registered voters through a county-run nursing home, the commissioners announced.
The plan exploits a loophole in the law that allows colleges and government-managed care facilities to issue identification cards to anyone, not just those who work, attend classes, or reside there.
While many of the details remain to be worked out, Democratic Commissioner Leslie Richards, head of the county election board, said the move would allow a larger swath of voters to obtain necessary identification in time for November's elections.
"Montgomery County will do everything it is legally permitted to do to ensure that as many voters as possible are equipped with acceptable ID so they can exercise their right to vote," she said.
Though the IDs will be issued through Parkhouse, the Montgomery County senior-care facility in Royersford, nursing home employees may be dispatched to several sites to take applications, county officials said.
Thursday's announcement came the same day Allegheny County unveiled a similar policy, allowing its residents to obtain identification cards through its community college and nursing facilities.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said that anyone seeking one of the new IDs would need to show a non-photo state or federal identification card, a firearm permit, a utility bill, a bank statement, a paycheck, or a government check.
"I firmly believe that anyone who wants to participate in our democracy through election should have every opportunity to do so," Fitzgerald said in a statement.
Montgomery County officials have not yet determined what proof of identity they will accept for their IDs.
Though neither county ran its plan past the Pennsylvania Department of State, which administers elections, Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the agency, said it had no immediate plans to challenge the counties in court.
"We believe it's legal, but we don't believe it's appropriate," he said of the new policies. "To us, it's very clear that this was not in the legislative intent of the law."
The moves were the latest salvos in a fight that has continued since the state's Republican-controlled legislature passed the voter-ID law this year. Under the statute, all voters will have to present a government-issued photo ID with an expiration date before they are allowed to cast a ballot.
Republican supporters say such requirements are necessary to combat voter fraud at the polls. Opponents maintain the fraud argument is a smoke screen concealing partisan efforts to disenfranchise low-income, urban, minority, and elderly voters more likely to lean Democratic. Those same groups, they say, are also the least likely to have driver's licenses, the most common form of acceptable ID.
Initially, the state required voters needing identification to get it through the state Department of Transportation by providing certified birth certificates, Social Security cards, and proof of residence. But the law was promptly challenged in court by the ACLU and other groups, a battle that continues to wage at the appellate level.
This week, the state Supreme Court ordered a lower court judge to reconsider whether his decision to uphold the law took into account whether voters had sufficient access to identification cards.
A Commonwealth Court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, with Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. expected to make his decision Oct. 2.
The high court made it clear it would not tolerate any disenfranchisement.
In Montgomery County, complaints have poured in from voters who say they were turned away at PennDot centers for failing to bring sufficient documentation, said Josh Shapiro, the county commissioners' chairman and a former Democratic state legislator from Abington. Others have said they were denied for bringing documents with slightly mismatched names.
Shapiro and Fitzgerald have both criticized the voter-ID law but emphasized Thursday their position that their counties' new policies do not undercut it.
Under the statute, five entities - the federal government, the state, municipal governments, colleges, and government-run care facilities - are able to issue acceptable forms of ID.
But while the law bars municipal governments from issuing identification to anyone but their employees, it does not prohibit colleges or care facilities from doing so.
"I took an oath of office to uphold all of the laws of the commonwealth," Shapiro said. "Tonight's decision simply ensures the rights of eligible Montgomery County voters."
His colleague, Republican Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., a former district attorney, voiced his support more cautiously minutes before voting in support of the county plan.
"I don't take any public position on the merits of the voter-ID law," he said. "For me, this is strictly a matter of legal interpretation."