Lawyers challenging Pennsylvania’s tough, new voter identification law on Friday targeted the viability of a special photo ID card that figures to be central to the state’s claim that everybody who needs a valid photo ID to vote in November will be able to get one.
The subject dominated the third day of a hearing in front of Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who must decide whether to block the law from taking effect in the Nov. 6 presidential election as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.
The four-month-old law, championed by Republicans, requires every voter to show a valid photo ID, which is a significant departure from current law. It also is the subject of a furious debate over voting rights as Pennsylvania is poised to play a key role in deciding the Nov. 6 presidential election, and Democrats accuse Republicans of raising barriers to voting by requiring unnecessary and time-consuming steps.
Plaintiffs lawyers estimate that at least 1 million voters — 12 percent of the nearly 8.3 million who are registered — lack valid photo ID under the law. They question why the photo ID requirement is even necessary, whether every registered voter will be able to get a valid ID before the election, and whether the state is advertising the law and a new Department of State photo ID appropriately and clearly.
The special Department of State photo ID card appears tailored to address a core complaint of the plaintiffs. That complaint is that some registered voters do not have the required documents — a birth certificate, a Social Security card and two proofs of residency — necessary to get the most common kind of valid identification under the law, a photo ID issued by the Department of Transportation.
On top of that, some people without a PennDOT-issued photo ID card have found it costly or impossible to get a birth certificate, and are trapped in a cycle where they need a PennDOT-issued photo ID to get a birth certificate, and a birth certificate to get a PennDOT-issued photo ID, witnesses testified this week.
Testimony on Friday revealed that plans to start issuing the new Department of State photo ID this week for people in such a situation fell through. The state originally intended to begin issuing the ID cards on Tuesday, but was forced to move that date to late August.
A top PennDOT official, Kurt Myers, testified Friday that the vendor tasked with making the new Department of State photo ID cards is on track to have them ready to be issued beginning Aug. 26.
But David Gersch, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, pointed to a copy of the contract and noted that it does not require the vendor to produce the Department of State photo ID cards by Aug. 26 and, further, it does not penalize the vendor if that date is not met.
The Department of State announced plans for the special photo ID card last week for registered voters who are unable to get a PennDOT-issued ID and lack any other photo ID that is acceptable under the law, such as a passport or active-duty military ID. The idea for it began to take shape in June, a month after the lawsuit was filed. Myers testified that he first suggested it in a June 1 meeting about the lawsuit with lawyers for the state.
To get one, an applicant does not have to provide a Social Security card or a birth certificate but must provide a Social Security number, their birthdate and two documents proving residence, such as a utility bill.
The original rationale in Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature for the law — to prevent election fraud — will play little role in the case since state lawyers have decided not to make that argument and acknowledged that they are “not aware of any incidents of in person voter fraud.” Instead, they are trying to show that lawmakers properly exercised their latitude to make election-related laws.
Gov. Tom Corbett, also a Republican, signed the law in March after it passed the Legislature without a Democratic lawmaker voting “yes.”
Simpson, a Republican, has said he hoped to rule during the week of Aug. 13. His decision likely will be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Testimony was expected to continue for much of next week.