Pennsylvania’s Trial Court Decision Defies Common Sense

Pennsylvania Judge Robert Simpson’s decision to uphold the state’s strict voter ID law fails to connect legal principles with practical realities.

August 16, 2012

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson’s 70-page decision yesterday refusing to block the state’s strict voter ID law is a rather curious document.  The decision fails to connect legal principles with practical realities and consequently the court failed to protect the rights of Pennsylvania’s voters. 

Simpson quickly waves away the facts and devotes nearly 50 pages to various legal theories and standards. Simpson conceded that should the voter ID law prevent any qualified person from casting a ballot; that voter will suffer “irreparable harm.”  Nonetheless, he ignores the real and substantial burdens imposed by this law on Pennsylvania’s voters and instead finds that because he does not believe that any voter will be “immediately” or “inevitably” fully disenfranchised, the law must stand.  More importantly Judge Simpson agreed that there are circumstances where some voters may be erroneously charged a fee to obtain a photo ID.  Ignoring the fact that the United States Supreme Court clearly stated in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board that a charge for a photo ID constitutes an illegal poll tax, Judge Simpson simply says that if charged, a voter could sue after the fact and obtain monetary damages, and therefore would not suffer “irreparable harm.”

Throughout the opinion Judge Simpson ignores the practical realities imposed upon voters. For instance, Judge Simpson endorsed a state plan to provide photo ID for those voters who cannot show proper proof of identity to the Department of Transportation. But the process would be daunting for even the most sophisticated citizen: first the voter must be rejected by the Department of Transportation and then the voter must file a separate application with the Department of State to obtain a special ID that has less strict identification requirements. In any case, even if a voter shows up at the polls without ID, they can always file a provisional ballot, Judge Simpson notes. Yet the voter must file a sworn statement within the county election board within 10 days for their vote to count. Somehow, Judge Simpson believes these obstacles are not undue burdens on properly registered voters.

Equally puzzling is Simpson’s faith in the Commonwealth’s ability to issue a sufficient number of photo ID’s in time for the November election. The Commonwealth’s estimates of the number of registered voters who lack photo ID has varied wildly – from 82,000 to 750,000. Yet Commonwealth Secretary Carol Aichele testified that only enough money has been allocated to provide ID’s for 75,000 voters – which is insufficient to cover even the Commonwealth’s lowest number.

Judge Simpson noted that he was “disturbed” by the widely-reported comments of GOP House Majority Leader Michael Turzai, that the new voter ID law will “win the election for Romney.”  But with a blind eye to common-sense, Simpson concluded that because Turzai made his remarks before the State Republican Committee rather than on the House floor, the law was not improperly driven by partisan motives.

By upholding Pennsylvania’s strict photo ID measure, Judge Simpson has allowed these government-imposed hurdles to stand between otherwise qualified citizens and the November ballot. One trusts that an appellate court will see the mistakes in the ruling and block Pennsylvania’s voter ID law.