Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson's refusal to stop Pennsylvania from potentially denying hundreds of thousands of voters their constitutional right to cast a ballot is disturbing.
Simpson's ruling Wednesday validating the state's new voter-ID law is steeped in legal precedents, but the past rulings he cites appear to be just as ideologically based.
Allegations that the ID law is a ploy to suppress the minority vote in the forthcoming presidential election have been bolstered by the unguarded statements of a top Republican legislator. House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said the law "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."
But Simpson's opinion seems to say that comment doesn't matter. He cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 ruling in favor of Indiana's voter-ID law, which he said concluded that "even if partisan considerations played a significant role in the decision to enact the statute, the valid neutral justifications advanced by the state in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process" warranted the law.
In other words, the ends justify the means, even if the means take away people's right to vote.
Turzai had the gall to issue a statement Wednesday hailing the ruling. "The integrity of each and every valid vote was upheld today," he said. "Qualified voters will have their votes counted."
Trial testimony showed the state was ill-prepared to ensure the voting rights of its 8.3 million registered voters, many of whom will likely be barred from voting because they lack the right ID.
Simpson said he had faith that the state could inform voters of the new rules. But he did not seem to understand that, even if they know what the law requires, too many voters may not be able to get a qualified ID.
The most common acceptable form of identification is a driver's license or a non-driving ID issued by the state Department of Transportation. But by the state's own calculations, 758,000 people lack those documents.
Simpson, who became a Republican after losing the Democratic nomination in a 1989 judicial race, was likely under tremendous pressure from fellow Republicans. True or not, many will believe his ruling reflects GOP ideology.
Plaintiffs have vowed to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. But with Republican Justice Joan Orie Melvin suspended pending her trial on misuse-of-office charges, the court is split, with three Democrats and three Republicans. A deadlock means Simpson's awful decision stands.
If it does, Pennsylvania will step backward in time to an era when the vote was not guaranteed to everyone. Simpson downplayed that possibility, saying the voter-ID law doesn't specifically mention "any class or group," so "its provisions are neutral and nondiscriminatory."
The judge must have forgotten that poll-tax laws didn't specify black people, but they were written to keep African Americans from voting. And poor white people were disfranchised as well.