A judge’s split-personality ruling in the nationally watched Pennsylvania voter ID case has advocates claiming something short of total victory and still worried about a potential chilling effect among seniors and minority voters on Election Day. The ruling could also fuel tactical decisions by Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
While Judge Robert Simpson on Tuesday enjoined the law from being enforced for the Nov. 6 election, he refused to strike it down entirely. He also ruled that workers can still ask voters for identification when they arrive at the polls, but if a voter lacks proper ID, he or she can still vote-- an outcome that invites the sort of puzzlement and misinformation that the law spawned in the first place.
“We’re concerned about the confusion that will continue to exist,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, an advocacy group that sued to block the law.
Simpson ordered the injunction after reviewing evidence that the state has been able to issue just over 10,000 valid IDs since August—far short the number necessary to ensure that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters would not be disenfranchised. The judge initially had upheld the law, but on appeal, the state Supreme Court routed it back to him to determine whether residents were having trouble navigating the extensive bureaucratic process necessary to obtain an ID.
As it turns out, scores of them were. “I expected more photo IDs to have been issued by this time. For this reason,” Simpson wrote, “the gap between the photo IDs issued and the estimated need will not be closed.”
But Simpson appeared set on carrying out the Republican-controlled legislature’s intent that the law ultimately go into effect. He found that poll workers should still be allowed to ask whether voters have ID as part of “education” and “outreach” efforts connected to the law.
Dianis termed it a “soft launch” of the voter ID law and worried that some misinformed poll workers may in fact end up turning voters away. There remains the prospect, too, that some potential voters will continue to mistakenly believe they need the ID specified in the law in order to vote, and will stay away from the polls on Election Day. “We are going to have to work against it and get the word out,” Dianis said.
Advocates have spent weeks trying to inform voters in hard-to-reach pockets of senior and minority communities in the state that they need to obtain an ID. Now, they’ll have to pivot and alter their message with a month to go before the election.
Still, none of those concerns should take away from the overall impact of Simpson’s ruling Tuesday, one that is likely to be upheld should the state decide to again take the case to the Supreme Court. Democrats have long contended that the ID law effort was a bid to keep the voters more likely to support President Obama from the polls (one Republican legislator even claimed that the law would ensure victory in the state for Romney).
Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes are critical to both candidates, with Obama consistently leading Romney in state polls. It’s conceivable that Tuesday’s ruling will factor into Romney campaign judgments about whether to actively contest the state. Last week, Romney made his first appearance in Pennsylvania in two months, in conjunction with a fundraiser. His campaign is running no ads there.