Nine witnesses expected to testify about trouble getting Pa. voter ID

Posted: September 28, 2012

HARRISBURG - Nine witnesses are to testify Thursday in Commonwealth Court about difficulties in obtaining state-issued photo identification so they could vote in November.

Their testimony will cap a second and likely final day of hearings before a judge who has hinted that he may enjoin the state from enforcing its controversial new law requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls.

Thursday's expected witnesses in the nationally watched case include voters who say they have been unable to obtain even the new voting-only cards the state began issuing in August as a simpler route to getting proper ID.

Also testifying will be community organizers and others helping voters obtain IDs and preparing for the law being in effect on Nov. 6. Among them: City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, the top elections official in Philadelphia, who has been critical of the law.

"It's clear that if anyone is disenfranchised by voter ID on Nov. 6, the fault is with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, not with the citizens of Philadelphia, who have stepped up in large numbers to spread the word and help neighbors get their IDs," Singer, a Democrat, said Wednesday in a statement.

Critics of the law have argued that it is being rushed into effect - it was enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature in March - and will disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. Democrats contend it was crafted by Republicans to suppress the vote for President Obama.

State officials have described steps they have taken, including television ads and mass mailings, to educate voters about the law and provide free photo IDs through Department of Transportation licensing centers.

The question before Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. is fairly narrow: Has the state done a good enough job getting IDs to anyone who needs one? The state Supreme Court told him to decide that issue when it sent the case back to him last week.

A survey released Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank, found that voters going to PennDot photo licensing centers encountered long lines and little signage about the new law.

The survey, conducted by volunteers who made 44 visits to PennDot centers, also said customer service representatives often did not give out information about the new voting-only ID, which has less stringent proof-of-identity requirements.

Instead, the survey said, PennDot workers mostly gave guidance on how to get a non-driving ID card, which requires voters to show a birth certificate and Social Security card.

PennDot officials countered that they had retrained their workers, expanded hours, and provided forms to obtain IDs and translated those into 10 languages, all in an effort to make it easier for voters. Commonwealth Secretary Carol Aichele, whose department oversees elections, said Wednesday the state had issued nearly 12,000 photo IDs to voters since the law was enacted.

On Tuesday, after hearing a day of testimony, Simpson raised the possibility that he would block the new law, telling both sides to prepare to argue on what a potential injunction should look like.

Attorneys in the case remained tight-lipped Wednesday on that question. Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who include individuals as well as civil-rights and civic groups, have said they want the law blocked until there can be a trial on its merits.

Simpson has until next week to decide. His ruling could be appealed anew to the state Supreme Court, which has said the law must be enjoined unless Simpson finds "no voter disenfranchisement" will result from it.


Contact Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934, acouloumbis@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AngelasInk.

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