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July 27, 2012 | By | Posted in General News

Week in Review: Voter ID lawsuit takes center stage

By PA Independent Staff

HARRISBURG — The controversy over Pennsylvania’s voter photo ID law is entering a new stage as the November elections approach.

Hundreds of protesters, who gathered Tuesday on the steps of the Capitol, said the Republican-driven law is a ploy to disenfranchise groups that tend to vote Democrat.

The following day, the Commonwealth Court held its first hearing on the constitutionality of the law. It’s expected to make a decision before the end of August.

While other states are removing noncitizens illegally registered to vote, Pennsylvania has no plan to clean up its voter rolls. A major loophole in the commonwealth’s law allows nearly 100,000 noncitizens to register and vote in the state.

And in a blow to the natural gas industry, the Commonwealth Court struck down a law that allowed the state government to overrule local zoning ordinances to boost natural gas drilling. Here is the week in review:

As voter ID law heads to court, politicians, activists gather at Capitol to protest

Hundreds of angry protesters descended on the Capitol, slamming the voter ID law that requires a photo ID as a condition of voting. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People organized the rally.

Opponents of the law argue that it will make it difficult or impossible for some minority groups to vote.

At a news conference in the Capitol shortly after the protest, state Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele said the law’s goal is to ensure “we have more fair and honest elections in Pennsylvania.”

Opponents, though, say elections are “fair and honest,” as evidenced by the state’s recent admission that it can find no evidence of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania.

During Aichele’s remarks, dozens of protesters gathered outside, chanting well-known civil rights songs and shouting for about 30 minutes.

On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union brought its lawsuit against the voter ID law to Commonwealth Court here. Hearings are expected to be every weekday until next Friday.

While the state Attorney General’s Office argued in a brief that the law does not violate the principle of “free and clear” elections, state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said the court should at least delay implementation of the law beyond November.

And because the federal Department of Justice is investigating whether the new law violates the voting rights of certain groups, it could face a challenge in federal court.

Loophole in law means 100K noncitizens can register and vote

Whether the voter ID law passes judicial muster, legal noncitizens — such as exchange students and holders of work visas — who would want to game the system wouldn’t have to try hard.

Noncitizens can register to vote if they sign an affidavit, swearing that they will have been citizens for at least one month prior to the next election.

Nearly 100,000 noncitizens hold a form of photo ID that is acceptable for voting, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Although there are few recorded instances of noncitizens casting ballots, this loophole shows that even if the voter ID law is upheld, it may not do as much as advertised in terms of stopping voter fraud.

In another East Coast swing state, Florida Republicans plan to clear out noncitizens from their voter rolls after they gained access to a federal database of legal noncitizens.

But Pennsylvania’s Department of State spokesman Ron Ruman said his agency has “no intention” of going the Florida route.

“It hasn’t come across our radar, I guess, as something we needed to look at,” Ruman said.

Officials say state won’t be jumping on the GARVEE train

Pennsylvania officials say GARVEE bonds — short for “grant anticipation revenue vehicles” — should not be a financing option for future infrastructure projects.

“Because of the debt load that would be incurred by the state using such financing for transportation projects, we feel it is not a prudent option,” said Dennis Buterbaugh, spokesman for the state’s Department of Transportation.

GARVEE bonds are issued in the expectation of future federal aid. They act as an advance financing option, allowing states to begin construction projects without waiting for the federal government.

But that federal stream of dollars, some say, is no sure thing.

“There’s no guarantee that money is going to be there when it’s time to pay it back,” said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the think tank Eno Center for Transporation.

The state’s needs are pressing as it faces around $3.2 billion in immediate infrastructure needs, according to a 2011 report by the Transportation Funding Advisory Commission. GARVEE bonds, debt and all, could put a dent in that $3.2 billion figure.

“It is not the long-term solution,” said state Sen. Hughes. “But it should be used as part of a solution.”

Court finds state’s natural gas zoning regulations unconstitutional

Pennsylvania can’t overrule local zoning laws in order to help the natural gas industry, the Commonwealth Court said on Thursday.

The state’s ability to zone in favor of natural gas firms was a major provision in the sweeping Marcellus shale drilling policy.

Act 13, enacted in March, also violates due process, because “it does not protect the interests of neighboring property owners from harm,” wrote Judge Dan Pellegrini in the majority opinion.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, praised the court for striking down the provision.

“It’s crucial that the drilling industry respects local zoning ordinances and is regulated so that the environment and neighbors are protected,” he said.

Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, said the zoning provisions were intended to provide certainty and predictability statewide for the companies trying to drill for natural gas.

“Lack of uniformity has long been an Achilles’ heel for Pennsylvania and must be resolved if the commonwealth is to remain a leader in responsible American nature gas development,” she said in a statement.

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Eric Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent. He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com or at (717) 350-0963.

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