John Baer: Pa. voter ID: A Slinky on the steps of low expectations

Posted: September 20, 2012

IF YOU THINK about Tuesday's order from the state Supreme Court on voter ID, it really does make perfect sense.

At least in Pennsylvania. It's what we've come to expect here in the land of low expectations.

The court, facing a timely decision on the state's nationally watched ID law, decided not to decide.

Instead, it kicked the controversial issue back down to a lower court - a court that already stressed that whatever it decided was ultimately to be decided by the state Supreme Court.

In other words, we have an ongoing game of decision tag, or the ever-popular legal lament: Let's-find-a-court-with-some-cojones.

As a result, and with do-good groups, activists, campaigns and the state spending money and resources straining to comply with a law that many reasonable people say there's no need for - and to do so in time for all eligible voters to be able to legally vote Nov. 6 - we have nothing but further delay and uncertainty.

Although some see Tuesday's ruling as a step toward stopping the law from taking effect this year, that's at this point speculation.

The high court's 4-2 high non-decision says the Commonwealth Court must determine whether the state really can provide enough voter IDs in time for Election Day, which was, as I recall, the same thing the same court was supposed to do in August.

Back then, the lower court put its faith in the state's assertion that it was issuing a new round of ID cards that are easier to obtain. So it denied an injunction to stop the law, thereby provoking an appeal and sending the mess upstairs.

Now, the high court plays the issue like a Slinky and slides it right back down.

So Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who first handled the case and acknowledged that whatever he decided in August would be appealed, gets the case again with orders to respond on or before Oct. 2.

If he finds that the state isn't able to get out enough ID cards in time, the Supreme Court says, he's "obliged to enter a preliminary injunction."

That wouldn't overturn the law, but it could stop it from taking effect this year - unless, of course, there was a successful appeal by the state.

It's enough to make one's head hurt.

Judge Simpson, a Lehigh Valley Republican who used to be a Democrat, probably is ready to register independent.

The position he's now in requires him to (a) restate his faith in the state, which would satisfy Republicans who passed and support the law, or (b) admit that his faith was misplaced and block the law, which would hand Democrats a victory and make the GOP Legislature look like ham-handed, over-reaching partisans.

Either decision could then be appealed back to the Supreme Court - where, I'd remind you, there are only six instead of seven justices (three Democrats and three Republicans) because Republican Justice Joan Orie Melvin was indicted on (ironically) election-related charges.

Appeals conceivably could continue up to or even beyond Election Day, lead to post-election litigation and generally deepen the quagmire created when the Legislature passed and Gov. Corbett signed this law back in March.

The politics are dizzying.

No Democrat voted for it. The leading House Republican said it would allow Mitt Romney to win the state. And the vast majority of state voters, most of whom are Democrats, tell pollsters they support it.

About the only thing clear is that it's wholly unclear how many eligible voters face disenfranchisement, what the law might actually mean to election outcomes and when Pennsylvanians can look to their Legislature and their courts with something other than low expectations.


Contact John Baer at baerj@phillynews.com. For his recent columns, go to philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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