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16 Sep 2012

Supreme Court hears Voter ID arguments

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September 16, 2012 Category: Local Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: National President and CEO of NAACP Benjamin Todd Jealous addresses the crowd at the NAACP Rally Against PA Voter ID Law 2012 on Thursday, September 13th, 2012 at the Municipal Building on JFK Blvd.

(Photo/ H Michael Hammie)


The fight over Pennsylvania’s Voter ID law came to Philadelphia City Hall as justices in the commonwealth’s highest court heard from both sides.


By Denise Clay


The six remaining justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the Commonwealth’s Voter ID law, which is scheduled to go into affect Monday.


Lawyers from both sides of the issue came before Chief Justice Ron Castille, and Justices Tom Saylor, J. Michael Eakin, Max Baer, Seamus McCaffrey, and Debra McCloskey Todd to present their arguments.


Due to recent decisions on voting laws in Texas, Florida and Ohio, Pennsylvania’s law has drawn national interest. Among those sitting in the courtroom and listening to the arguments were Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the national NAACP.


That laws such as the Voter ID law, which requires that voters come to the polls armed with an official ID lest their vote be discounted have become part of our voting discussions is a function of the power of a more diverse electorate, Jealous said. In large states like Pennsylvania, states expected to have a large impact in the November elections, laws like this could tip the balance, he said.


“You see efforts like this whenever Blacks make inroads in the democratic system,” he said. “You saw it after the Civil War and also when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. In 2008, we saw the breaking of the color line to the White House and saw the most diverse electorate in our nation’s history participate in the process. This law doesn’t fix voting. It fixes the election itself.”


The impact that allowing the law to stand as constituted would have on the elections was on the minds of those witnessing the hearings in the courtroom and via a video feed in an overflow room.


David Gersh, an attorney from the Washington, D.C. firm Arnold and Porter that was representing the plaintiffs began his arguments by saying that the added imposition of a law requiring photo identification goes against the concept of voting being a fundamental right, especially since it puts the onus on voters.


“While this law requires that you have an ID, it doesn’t guarantee an ID for you,” he said. “There are going to be some people that can’t get an ID.”


As part of his argument, Gersh told the justices that access to a PennDot location is harder for some voters than it is for others. For example, there are nine counties in the Commonwealth where there is no PennDot office and 13 counties where the office is only open once a week.


And even if PennDot is open, there’s no way that everyone who needs an ID will be able to get one, Gersh said.


PHOTO: Demonstrators with signs in attendance at the NAACP Rally Against PA Voter ID Law.

(Photo/ H Michael Hammie)


“PennDot puts out about 45,000 a month,” he said. “Even if they did an extra 10,000 a month, they’d still never be able to get IDs for everyone.”


After making the argument that others states that have voter ID laws such as Michigan and Virginia make allowances and accommodations for voters such allowing voters to sign an affidavit confirming who they are and providing ID free of charge to voters, Justice Baer tried to propose a compromise.


“If the Commonwealth says that they’ll give everyone ID or will allow them to sign an affidavit, will you withdraw this action,” he asked.


Gersh said that unless there were some changes made to PennDot, getting ID to everyone was probably impossible.


When Chief Deputy Attorney Gen. John Knorr presented the Commonwealth’s side of the story, he said that issuing an injunction against the law would represent a break with precedent when it came to the Supreme Court and the latitude it gives the Pennsylvania Legislature when it comes to voting.


“While the right to vote at its core is fundamental, not everything else connected to it is,” he said. “The legislature has to have the right to regulate elections and this is something where the court has traditionally given deference.”


But when it comes to disenfranchising voters, the plaintiffs argued, giving the legislature that kind of deference is wrong. Knorr disagreed.


“This isn’t a hardship to voting,” he said. “It’s funny that no one has mentioned the plaintiffs in this case. Most of them now have ID.”


It was after saying this that Justice Todd let Knorr know that he may have gone too far. Because one of the more frequent questions asked during both sets of arguments was about the timing of the Voter ID law, she asked Knorr about it.


“If we had two years to implement this, would it be better,” Todd asked.


“Yes,” Knorr conceded.


“Then what’s the rush?” Todd asked.


Albert Putnam, another lawyer for the Commonwealth, tried to answer the question by saying voter integrity was at stake in this election.


“There have been instances of voter fraud and because of this the public doesn’t trust our electoral process,” he said, going on about cases of people voting while dead and other abnormalities.


That bit of speechmaking led to one of the day’s more humorous questions from Castille.


“Mr. Putnam, can you stick to this case?” he said.


The court, which usually has seven members, is down to six due to the legal troubles of Justice Joan Orie Melvin. Justice Melvin is currently under indictment for using state staffers as campaign workers. Because of this, if there is a tie among the justices, which are split evenly with three Republicans and three Democrats, the lower court decision by Judge Robert E. Simpson denying the injunction would remain valid.


The court is expected to rule on the matter by the end of the month.


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