Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson’s 70-page order ruled the challengers had failed to establish that any voter disenfranchisement was “immediate or inevitable” so as to justify enjoining the law from taking effect.
At issue is the requirement that all Pennsylvania voters produce a valid photo ID before their ballot can be counted, a substantial change from the law it was designed to replace. That law required identification only for people voting in a polling place for the first time and it allowed non-photo documents such as a utility bill or bank statement. But some of the people who sued over the law say they will be unable to vote because they lack the necessary documents, including a birth certificate, to get a state photo ID, the most widely available of the IDs that are valid under the law.
Simpson ruled that the law “does not expressly disenfranchise or burden any qualified elector or group of electors. The statute simply gives poll workers another tool to verify that the person voting is who they claim to be.” He said that opponents of the law “did an excellent job of ‘putting a face’ to those burdened by the voter ID requirement” but that it wasn’t enough.
“At the end of the day, however, I do not have the luxury of deciding this issued based on my sympathy for the witnesses or my esteem for counsel,” Simpson ruled. “Rather, I must analyze the law, and apply it to evidence of facial unconstitutionality brought forth in the courtroom, tested by our adversarial system.”
The justification for refusing to enjoin the law is that it is harder to stop and restart the process of preparing to administer elections under the new voter ID law. Of course, that justification presumes as its default the validity of the restrictions. In other words, Simpson’s mind was made up before the plaintiffs entered the courtroom. To be fair, Simpson’s also bound by law that starts out with the presumptions that all bills are constitutional unless proven otherwise, but in denying the injunction he made it clear he didn’t think plaintiff’s had a case.
Opponents of the bill are expected to file an appeal within the next day or two. “We’re not done, it’s not over,” said Witold J. Walczak, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who helped argue the case for the plaintiffs. “It’s why they make appeals courts.”
The Department of Justice is conducting its own investigation to determine if the law violates federal voting laws.
The ruling doesn’t reach all the issues before the court, but that may ultimately prove irrelevant. Absent an emergency ruling by the appellate court the law will go into effect while the parties fight over the remaining legalities of the bill. Even if the court ultimately strikes the law, that ruling will be appealed and it will be years before the issue is ultimately resolved. The damage will have been done and it could be permanent.
Photo from Alan Cleaver via flickr.