Thursday, August 16, 2012

Waiting for 'stop-the-presses' moment in voter ID saga -- Aug. 16, 2012 column


As Republican state legislators around the country pressed for strict voter ID laws, insisting they’re needed to combat widespread voter fraud, I wished for a “stop-the-presses” moment.

You know, the scene in old movies when a courageous soul breaks with his pals, comes clean and speaks the truth. In this case, the protagonist would shock fellow Republicans by saying, voter ID laws won’t stop fraud and besides there’s not much of it anyway.

That almost happened in a state court in Pennsylvania this week. Almost.

Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, said after a six-day trial with two dozen witnesses and 50 exhibits challenging the state’s new photo ID law that the parties to the lawsuit were unaware of any incidents of fraud perpetrated by people who impersonate voters in Pennsylvania or anywhere else.

The state offered no evidence of such fraud, Simpson said. Nor did the state argue that fraud was likely to occur in the November elections without the new law that requires voters to show a government-picture ID.

And then Simpson upheld the law anyway. What?

He refused to grant a preliminary injunction to block the law, known as Act 18, as requested by several civil rights groups. He said the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and other groups had failed to establish that disenfranchisement was “immediate or inevitable.”

Simpson focused on a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a nearly identical voter ID law in Indiana, even though there was no evidence of voter impersonation fraud.

He was not convinced that hundreds of thousands of qualified Pennsylvania voters could be disenfranchised, as challengers claimed, he said. Rather, he thought not one qualified voter would be turned away. That’s because state agencies have the time and the procedures to fully educate every voter in Pennsylvania about the requirement and to supply the IDs needed before Election Day.

The infirm and elderly can vote absentee, and those who do show up at the polls without the proper ID can cast provisional ballots and prove their eligibility within six days so that their votes are counted, he wrote in a 70-page opinion.

The ACLU other groups will appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, but legal analysts say the law likely will be on the books in November.

The six-member state Supreme Court is currently divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans. The state justices are unlikely to break along party lines, Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, wrote on the Election Law Blog, but a tie will leave the lower court opinion in place. He expects either that there won’t be another ruling on the merits before November or that the result will be unchanged.

And so the outcome of a crucial presidential battleground hinges on whether a judge’s trust in state bureaucrats is well-founded. This is ironic because Republicans have fueled distrust in the electoral process and government in general by insisting that only photo IDs will make elections fair and honest.

Requiring voters to produce a certain kind of picture ID will crack down on the armies of Fidos, Fluffys, non-citizens and the dead who cast ballots. Except that they don’t.

You are more likely to get hit by lightning than to encounter someone impersonating a voter, the Brennan Center, a progressive think tank, has observed.

Critics contend that voter ID laws are a deliberate way to deter and even block eligible voters who tend to vote Democratic -- seniors, the poor and the homeless who may not have the necessary paperwork to obtain IDs.

State Rep. Mike Turzai, Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania legislature, bragged to a Republican group in June, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania -- done.”

Turzai’s comment was disturbing and tendentious, Judge Simpson said, but there was no evidence that other state legislators shared Turzai’s partisan goal. Even so, the judge said, that would not “invalidate the interests” of the law.

Oh, really? I don’t hear anybody yelling, “Stop the presses!”

Let’s hope the judge is correct that all voters can get the ID cards they need. If qualified voters give up or are turned away, a law passed to solve a non-existent problem will create a real one.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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