On September 13, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments challenging a recent state law which requires voters to display a photo identification on Election Day. In August, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled that the law would be implemented for Pennsylvanians entering the ballot box this November.
The issue of voter ID requirements has proven to be extremely controversial this election year. While the decision to require voters to show photo ID is under state jurisdiction, it is an issue which falls mostly along partisan lines. Proponent of such laws, mostly Republicans, argue that requiring a photo ID is critical to validating identity when registration lists may not be up to date. Opponents, mostly Democrats, argue that voter fraud is rare and that requiring photo ID will disenfranchise various at-risk voting blocs including the urban poor and the elderly. So far, only nine states require a photo ID to vote.
The case has been brought to suit by the America Civil Liberties Union and 10 citizens who argue that Simpson’s decision does not respect voting as a fundamental right. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele has estimated that, at the time of the election, the number of voters without ID will be 100,000 or less, although opponents are skeptical that the number is much higher.
Legal and political precedents in Pennsylvania seem to indicate that the law will be upheld. “It's part of the job of the Legislature to oversee the franchise, and so the general idea that there should be some system to identify voters is obviously and clearly within the legislative power,” said Bruce Ledewitz, professor at Duquesne University School of Law, to the Post-Gazette.
“The Pennsylvania courts have historically treated the rights provided by the federal Constitution as a floor and not a ceiling," said Seth Kreimer, ACLU Philadelphia chairman and professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania.
Despite the likelihood of the state law being upheld this month, it is clear that the decision in Pennsylvania will not end the debate on voter identification. President Barack Obama encouraged voters to fight for unobstructed access to the ballot in his speech at the Democratic National Convention. “If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void," he said. "The people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are trying to make it harder for you to vote.”
The Pennsylvania decision will be the last word on the issue until Election Day on November 6. Although the election is unlikely to be decided by the estimated 100,000 votes that may be discounted, the decision may be used as a last minute rally by the candidates to fire up their bases heading into November.