The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

News

August 2, 2012

Lawyers clash over state voter ID as hearing ends

HARRISBURG — Lawyers trying to prevent Pennsylvania's new voter-identification law from taking effect in the Nov. 6 election argued Thursday the law will disenfranchise voters and cause chaos at the polls, while state attorneys said any major problems should be ironed out by Election Day.

"There's no good reason why this law needs to be in effect in November," Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said in closing arguments on the seventh and final day of a hearing on a lawsuit seeking to block the law.

Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley said the ACLU and other groups that provided free legal services to the plaintiffs built their case around an "emotional appeal that plays well to the cameras and those untrained in the law."

Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said he would issue his ruling during the week of Aug. 13.

Both Walczak and Cawley said they intend to appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court if the other side prevails.

At issue is a requirement that all Pennsylvania voters produce a valid photo ID before their ballot can be counted. Current law requires identification only for people voting in a polling place for the first time and allows non-photo documents such as a utility bill.

The law has stoked a fiery debate over voting rights in a year that Pennsylvania could play a crucial role in the presidential election. The law was written and passed by Republicans who control the Legislature, without one Democratic vote, and Democrats charge it is part of a partisan scheme to give GOP candidate Mitt Romney an advantage over Democratic President Barack Obama, who carried the state in 2008.

Also complicating the voter-access issue are questions of what constitutes a valid ID and how many voters have one.

The plaintiffs estimate that at least 1 million of the state's 8.3 million voters lack an ID acceptable under the law. But state officials believe the number is smaller than the 759,000 voters whose names did not match a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation database listing holders of the most common ID — a state driver's license or non-driver ID.

Walczak predicted some voters won't have valid IDs, others may not know about the law until they get to the polls and many may be frustrated at longer-than-usual waits because of the new law and the traditionally larger turnout in presidential elections.

"There are no do-overs. This is a one-shot deal," he said in urging the judge to block the law.

Voters who show up at the polls without a PennDOT-issued ID or any of several alternative forms of ID can cast a paper provisional ballot, but it will be counted only if they provide proper identification to local election officials within six days.

Walczak also said the rules for non-PennDOT IDs are irrational because they set differing requirements for different groups, including people who cast absentee ballots, senior citizens living in care facilities, college students and government employees.

Cawley, who led the state's defense team, urged the judge to let the law stand so that voter-outreach and education programs sponsored by the state and groups supporting the lawsuit can continue during the three months left until the election.

"Unanswered questions will be resolved," he said.

Cawley said the Legislature has "wide discretion" to craft election-related legislation and an important interest in detecting and preventing fraud. He said the law simply requires voters to "confirm their identity" in a way that dovetails existing requirements.

Lawyers for both sides signed a written stipulation prior to the hearing that they were "not aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud," and an election-fraud expert retained by the plaintiffs testified that fraud committed by individual voters is "exceedingly rare." But Cawley said fraud "does happen and could affect the outcome of a close election."

"When voter fraud happens, there's no blood on the sidewalk and there are no vulnerable victims to show to a jury," Cawley said.

Walczak reminded the judge about the law's partisan implications by replaying a video clip from a June GOP gathering that he previously entered into the court record. It shows state House Republican leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, declaring that the law "is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."

The video shows that "both in intent and effect, there is partisan gain at issue," Walczak said.

 

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