PHILADELPHIA (AP) — With 54 days until Pennsylvanians help decide who will be president, state Supreme Court justices began listening to arguments Thursday morning over whether a new law requiring each voter to show valid photo identification poses an unnecessary threat to the right 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 Democratic President Barack Obama, Republican nominee Mitt Romney and as many as two third-party candidates. The law — championed by Republicans over the objections of Democrats — is now part of the heated election-year political rhetoric in the presidential swing state.
In opening statements by a lawyer for the plaintiffs, justices asked whether it would be acceptable for the new photo identification requirement to be phased in over a longer period of time — say, a period covering two federal elections.
The lawyer, David Gersch, replied that it would, as long as the law guarantees the right to vote to each registered voter, even if one who cannot get a photo ID that's valid under the law. Other states, such as Georgia and Michigan, have made such guarantees in their laws, and Pennsylvania's Legislature could loosen the state's limits on who can vote by absentee ballot, Gersch said.
But under Pennsylvania's 6-month-old law, "there's too little time, there's too many people affected and there's no place in the statute that guarantees that qualified electors can get the ID they need to vote," Gersch told the justices.
The state's lawyers have argued that 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.
The high court normally has seven members. But it will hear the politically charged case with just six — three Democrats and three Republicans — and a 3-3 deadlock would allow the lower court decision to stand. A seventh justice, a Republican, was suspended in May after being charged in a political corruption investigation.
The Republican-written ID 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 contend 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.
While Pennsylvania isn't alone — Republicans in more than a dozen states have recently advanced tougher voter identification requirements — its law is among the toughest in the nation.
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 say Simpson ignored state court decisions that should have convinced him that the right to vote deserves special protection. They also say Simpson made no finding that the law will somehow achieve public confidence in elections, a key justification used by lawmakers who supported it.