HARRISBURG - It could be nearly a year before Pennsylvanians know whether they will need to show photo identification at the polls for future elections.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. said Thursday he would decide within the next 10 days on a trial date to determine the constitutionality of the state's new voter-ID law. But he said he was leaning toward the middle of summer.
Given that timetable, Simpson said, he would be in a position to announce a decision by August. He said that he expected the case to again be appealed to the state Supreme Court, and that he wanted to give that court enough time to render its decision on the law's constitutionality before the November 2013 election.
"I think I need to keep them [Supreme Court] in the circle here," Simpson said.
In the interim, he said, he will also likely have to hold a hearing in the spring to decide how to handle the May 2013 primary and whether he should extend a partial injunction on the voter-ID law through that election as well. In early October, just weeks before the presidential election, Simpson agreed to temporarily block the law from going into effect, but in his ruling he made clear that the injunction covered only the 2012 presidential election. He left the law intact, and with the presidential election over, it is in effect for all future elections.
The ACLU and lawyers for plaintiffs in the case said Thursday they would push to extend the injunction to the May primary.
Attorneys for the state were circumspect. "We are going to have to take a look at it, because it may be unavoidable, given the logistics of this litigation . . . that we have to do something to alleviate the voter-ID requirements for May," Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley said. "I don't know if that is going to be the case, but it is something we have to seriously consider."
The ACLU and its partners have argued that the law would disenfranchise voters, particularly the young, old, and poor. They contend that many voters cannot meet the requirements to obtain an acceptable form of photo ID. For instance, the free nondriving photo IDs the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation issues require voters to show a birth certificate and Social Security card, documents that many have had a difficult time obtaining. "This is about the right to vote," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, state legal director of the ACLU and one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, who include several voters as well as the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and other groups.
"The right to vote is precious," Walczak said Thursday. "It is not only fundamental, it is foundational. And when you pass a law that prevents people from voting, you have to have some good reason."
Proponents of the law counter that voter ID will ensure that elections are fair and cut down on voter fraud. They have been unable, however, to provide evidence of voter impersonation at the polls.
In a related development, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) asked the Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate to launch hearings on Pennsylvania's voter-ID law and other voting controversies that arose during election season. In a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), Fattah wrote: "The right to vote is fundamental. . . . I call on you to hold a full-fledged bipartisan Senate investigation into this terrible injustice against millions of American citizens."