Inquirer Editorial: Court won't get final word

Posted: September 18, 2012

Voters shouldn't wait for the state Supreme Court to decide the fate of Pennsylvania's discriminatory photo-ID law. They should make sure they have the right identification now.

Fewer than 8,800 people have obtained acceptable voter IDs out of the many more thousands who will need them in November to exercise their citizenship rights, according to the latest available figures.

Fundamentally, though, the Supreme Court should either throw out the law or, at least, stop it from taking effect in this election cycle. Otherwise, the state cannot guarantee the rights of Pennsylvania registered voters to a "free and equal election." Thousands could be disenfranchised in an effort to stem a type of voter fraud thar the state stipulated it could not prove exists.

Neither supporters nor opponents can agree on how many people lack acceptable IDs. The estimates range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Even with a $5 million publicity campaign, without a good list of those without acceptable ID, how can the Department of State possibly reach every voter to inform him or her of the new law?

The court last week heard an appeal of a Commonwealth Court decision that upheld the state legislature's authority to set election rules. But Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. based his ruling, in part, on an 1869 case that allowed the legislature to impose onerous voting qualifications on Philadelphians because they were considered less moral than other state residents. Under that ruling, if a Philadelphia renter wanted to vote, he had to get two landowners to sign affidavits saying he was a citizen.

Just as that case discriminated against those whom 19th-century justices ridiculously referred to as less "virtuous," the case before the court now discriminates against others. Many don't have the most commonly accepted form of photo ID, a driver's license, because they're too old and too poor to drive, or live in an urban area and use mass transit.

To get a state ID, they must go to a state Department of Transportation center. Mayor Nutter has agreed to supply transportation for voters to obtain their IDs, and has asked that the centers expand their hours. But what about voters in rural areas, where PennDot centers are open only a few days a week and are far from many voters' homes? Those voters are out of luck.

When justices heard the case last week, Justice Seamus McCaffery, a Democrat, puckishly asked if the timing of the law was political. But that answer came weeks ago, when House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Jefferson) publicly declared that Pennsylvania's voter-ID law would help Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney win the state. Nine other states have imposed similar ID laws.

The state's highest court, potentially deadlocked with three Republicans and three Democrats, should rise above partisanship and void this harmful law. But if it doesn't, voters can safeguard their own rights and reject this dirty trick by making sure they have the ID they need to vote.

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