HARRISBURG, Pa. — With 54 days until Pennsylvanians help decide who will be president, state Supreme Court justices will listen to arguments Thursday over whether a new law requiring each voter to show valid photo identification poses an unnecessary threat to the right, and ability, to vote.
The high court appeal follows a lower court's refusal to halt the law from taking effect Nov. 6, when voters will choose between President Barack Obama, a Democrat, Republican nominee Mitt Romney and as many as two third-party candidates.
The state's lawyers say lawmakers properly exercised their constitutional latitude to make election-related laws and that every registered voter, including those suing, will be able to cast a ballot, either after getting a valid photo ID or by absentee ballot if they are disabled or frail.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs insist their clients, as well as hundreds of thousands of other registered voters, do not know about the complicated requirements, do not have a valid ID or will be unable to get one.
"At stake in this case is the fundamental right to vote," the plaintiffs lawyers' argued in a 58-page appeal. "Yet this grave risk to the legitimacy of Pennsylvania's election is counterbalanced by no governmental interest. ... This (Supreme) Court has previously held that depriving even one person of the right to vote is an 'extremely serious matter.'"
The Republican-written requirement — justified as a bulwark against potential election fraud — was a political lightning rod even before it became law in March. It has inspired protests, warnings of Election Day chaos and voter education drives.
Democrats charge that it is designed to suppress the votes of minorities, the poor, young and others considered more likely to vote for Obama in a state whose 20 electoral votes make it a major player in electing a president.
On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett defended the law he signed.
"There is no organized voter suppression here," Corbett said on a radio call-in show. "If anything, this is going to stimulate the vote. It's clear because look at the various interest groups that are out there working on stimulating the vote. ... More people are going to come out to vote as a result of this."
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson last month rejected the plaintiffs' request for an injunction. In his 70-page opinion, Simpson said the plaintiffs did not show that "disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable" and, thanks to the state's efforts, getting a valid photo ID "does not qualify as a substantial burden on the vast supermajority of registered voters."
But lawyers for the plaintiffs — eight individuals, plus the Homeless Advocacy Project, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — picked apart Simpson's decision.
For one, Simpson ignored state court decisions that should have convinced him that the right to vote deserves special protection against an unnecessarily strict law, they said.
Simpson made no finding that the law will somehow achieve public confidence in elections, a key justification used by lawmakers who supported it. And, they said, he disregarded federal court precedent when he said disenfranchisement was not "immediate or inevitable" because of a problem the state promised to fix.
That promise was to begin issuing a special, voting-only photo ID card to registered voters who otherwise lacked the documentation necessary to get a photo ID from the Department of Transportation.
While Pennsylvania isn't alone — Republicans in more than a dozen states have recently advanced tougher voter identification requirements — it's law is among the toughest in the nation and has taken some high-profile lumps.
A top state Republican lawmaker's recent claim that the identification requirement "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state" prompted U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia to single out Pennsylvania's law in front of the Democratic National Convention audience as an example of Republicans suppressing the right to vote.
State officials have scrambled to address misunderstandings or unforeseen problems created by the complicated law.
Jim Cramer, a mass-market personal finance guru and host of CNBC's "Mad Money" show, issued this dispatch Tuesday on Twitter to nearly 570,000 followers: "I have a problem. My dad, a vet, won't be allowed to vote in Pa. because he does not drive, he is elderly, and can't prove his citizenship."
State officials called Cramer's publicist, got in contact with his family and found that Cramer's father does indeed have a valid form of identification.
Cramer tweeted hours later: "PennDot read my Tweet and came directly to the rescue of Pop and did so in a terrific way so he can vote. Thank you Penndot!"