By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – The battle over voter ID in the Keystone State has reached its boiling point.
Several hundred angry protesters gathered at the state capitol Tuesday, a day before the first Commonwealth Court hearing on the legitimacy of the voter ID law and one day after it was revealed that the federal Department of Justice is also reviewing the Pennsylvania law.
The controversial law is part of a national effort spearheaded by Republican governors and GOP-controlled state legislatures. Supporters say the effort will strike a blow against voter fraud by ensuring that only legitimate votes are cast.
In Pennsylvania and elsewhere, opponents say the law has a more sinister purpose: to disenfranchise groups that traditionally support Democrats, including minorities, the poor and the elderly.
“When you eliminate the opportunity of Americans to cast that vote, you’re eliminating the opportunity to hold our politicians accountable, to keep them on the right road to implementing policies that are important in our communities,” said Hilary O. Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy of the NAACP, which helped organize Tuesday’s event.
More than 30 people spoke in opposition to the law during a rally that lasted more than two hours in 90 degree heat on the steps of state capitol. While the list of speakers included local officials, state lawmakers, union leaders and heads of community groups, none said they were among the thousands of Pennsylvanians they said could be disenfranchised by the law.
Aichele defended the law and the speed with which it has been implemented. She said the Department of State was making “every effort” to inform residents about how to obtain an ID for voting purposes.
But before Election Day, the voter ID law is going to get a hard look from both the state and federal government.
As first reported Monday by Talking Points Memo, the federal Department of Justice is launching an investigation into whether the new law disenfranchises minority voters. In a letter to Aichele on Monday, assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez requested information including the state’s complete voter rolls, database of driver’s license holders and information on how the state is working to ensure all voters have acceptable forms of identification by November.
In a release earlier this month, the department revealed that about 9 percent of Pennsylvanians — around 750,000 of the state’s 8.2 million registered voters — did not have a driver’s license or official state identification card.
That number does not match statements from Gov. Tom Corbett’s office during the debate over the bill. Then, Corbett claimed only 1 percent of Pennsylvanians did not have the necessary identification. That discrepancy apparently prompted the federal review.
Other forms of identification will also be accepted on Election Day, including passports, military IDs, and some student IDs. The department of transportation will also issue identification cards free of charge to anyone who needs one for voting purposes between now and the election.
Aichele said Tuesday it is not possible to quantify how many of the voters that lack a state ID might have another acceptable form of identification.
Since some of those 750,000 individuals who lack a state-issued ID may have another form of ID that is acceptable under the law, the department believes somewhere between 100,000 and 750,000 cards will need to be issued before the election.
Tuesday, state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, said the figure could be as high as 1.2 million.
The state has set aside $1 million to cover the cost of those new IDs, which Aichele said would cover the cost of about 85,000 new cards.
On Wednesday, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court will hear a case brought by the ACLU that seeks to strike down the voter ID law on the grounds that it disenfranchises voters and creates an undue burden on voters.
The law will lead to elections that “are no longer free and equal,” the suit argues.
In a response to that lawsuit, the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office argues that the law is a “valid exercise” of the state’s power to regulate elections and does not violate the principle of “free and clear” elections.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said Tuesday that the court should at least delay the start of the law until after the presidential election.
“This is a process that is clearly not ready for implementation this election year,” he said. “There are far too many kinks in the process for it to be implemented.”
Aichele said she was confident the law would be upheld.
Observers agree that the result of the Commonwealth Court case is unlikely to end the controversy — the losing side is likely to appeal to the state Supreme Court and the federal investigation could end up with the law facing a challenge in federal court as well.
At the state Supreme Court, a potentially tricky situation exists. With Justice Joan Orie Melvin gone — suspended earlier this year following corruption charges related to the conviction of her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny — With Orie Melvin suspended, the court is divided between three Republicans and three Democrats. That could lead to a split decision on the issue.
Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College, said the Commonwealth Court ruling would stand in the event of a 3-3 tie on appeal in the Supreme Court.
Melissa Daniels and Jared Sichel contributed to this report.