Like King Solomon, judge can split Voter ID law in half

Posted: August 07, 2012

WITH SUCH SHARP partisan disagreement over Pennsylvania's controversial voter-ID law, one way to address this baby is just to cut it in half.

Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson is to rule next week on a challenge to the law, having listened to evidence and testimony drawn from 100,000 pages of documents during a seven-day hearing that ended Thursday.

Simpson might not be Solomon, but he is from Nazareth (Pa.), and as a Democrat-turned-Republican, he might more easily see each side.

If the focus of his ruling centers on the intricacies of constitutional law and consideration of the law's application as regards this year's election, he could follow the legendary king of Israel's lead and recommend cutting the baby in half.

He could rule the law constitutional but too problematic to fairly implement before Nov. 6.

That would keep the law, take timely compliance issues off the table, end charges of vote manipulation in a presidential year and give the debate a strong element of good, old common sense.

Here's why.

Most reasonable people concede that everyone should have a photo ID. And this law presents an opportunity for those without one to get one free.

But most reasonable people also concede that the law presents obstacles (having or getting required documents; physically getting to state licensing centers) for many who are old, ill, disabled, poor, rural or urban that could bar their votes.

Unless that is the intent of the Legislature, Gov. Corbett and state courts, it can be avoided by delaying the law's implementation or removing some of its obstacles.

There are sound reasons do to so.

Any time government changes anything, there are periods of confusion and delay.

Georgia's 2006 voter-ID law was implemented two years after adoption. New Jersey's 2004 switch to its six-point ID-verification system for driver's licenses took years to settle in.

"It was definitely an educational process for us," says New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission spokesman Mike Horan. "The main thing was not so much understanding the change; the problem seemed to be getting the documents."

And what about the numbers?

Unrebutted testimony says that however many Pennsylvania voters are without the required photo ID, it is a large number — possibly hundreds of thousands.

If, as House Republican Leader Mike Turzai says, the law is designed to protect the sanctity of "every vote," the design appears to be flawed.

Is there a case for the law?

Sure.

Clearly the no-ID number can be greatly reduced before elections. And whether it is or not, the actual impact on election outcomes is soft speculation.

During closing arguments last week, Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley noted that if significant voter-disenfranchisement occurred in other states with voter-ID laws, we'd hear about it.

"It hasn't happened elsewhere; it won't happen here," Cawley said.

Arguing against the law, ACLU lawyer Vic Walczak said that although the reason offered for its adoption was to stop fraud, the state has provided no evidence or provable likelihood of fraud.

"Not one commonwealth witness took the stand and said why we need this law," Walczak said.

But an unneeded law isn't necessarily an unconstitutional law.

On constitutional questions, an argument is that the law creates separate classes of voters by burdening those without photo IDs, and goes beyond state Constitution voting requirements limited to age, citizenship and length of residency.

The latter, say opponents of the law, begs the question of whether the Legislature can add requirements without amending the Constitution.

But the state argues that there's no separation of voters because new requirements apply to all, and the Legislature clearly regulates elections, including currently requiring all first-time voters to show ID.

So, the law could well pass constitutional muster. The larger problems are practical and political.

Is it practical to think that compliance is possible without jeopardizing a significant number of votes? And is it politically wise for the GOP to be seen as altering the voting process to stop blacks and poor people from re-electing President Obama?

It is better for all concerned — voters, parties, those given to hot rhetoric on both sides, and the democratic process — if this law is enacted later rather than sooner.

In other words, cut this baby in half.

For recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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