Pennsylvania state officials on Tuesday once again produced an 11th-hour attempt to salvage a new law requiring all voters to show a particular kind of photo ID in the hours before a court hearing on whether it will effectively strip some people of the right to vote this year.
Top Corbett administration officials testified in Commonwealth Court that a newly streamlined process for get a voting-only photo ID card from the state was finalized Monday night in an effort to satisfy a week-old Supreme Court decision that insisted the state comply with the liberal access to a photo ID that the law seemed to promise. The new process was supposed to become effective Tuesday morning.
"We're trying to balance what the act requires and direction the court had led us in," testified Shannon Royer, a deputy secretary for the Department of State, which oversees elections.
As a result, a registered voter will no longer be required to first try to get a "secure" photo ID from the state that can be used for non-voting purposes, such as cashing a check or boarding an airplane. Also, the person seeking the voting-only photo ID will no longer need to show two documents that prove where they live.
However, the person seeking the voting-only ID will still need to swear - under penalty of law - that they have no other form of ID that is valid under the law and give their name, date of birth, Social Security number and address.
The Commonwealth Court hearing is the latest chapter in a legal challenge asking to halt the law from taking effect in the Nov. 6 election.
In a 4-2 decision last week, the state Supreme Court ordered Tuesday's Commonwealth Court hearing to determine whether the state is meeting the law's requirement of providing easy access to a valid photo ID. If it is not, or if the judge believes any registered voters will be prevented from casting a ballot, then the judge should halt the law from taking effect in the election, the high court said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said registered voters have continued to be turned away from state driver licensing centers without a photo ID. They cite burdensome, complicated and illegal requirements that are out of step with the law's promise of a photo ID for every eligible voter who needs one to vote. They also say that some people who believe they are registered to vote are being turned away without an ID card because state election agency employees cannot find their name in the state's voter database.
The hastily arranged hearing was expected to continue Thursday. At the start of the hearing, lawyers for the state complained that they knew little about people expected to testify for the plaintiffs. Witold Walczak, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is helping represent the plaintiffs, responded that they had had little time to prepare affidavits from people who are complaining about difficulty getting access to a state-issued photo ID.
The Supreme Court asked for an opinion by Oct. 2, just 35 days before the election.
The judge hearing the case, Robert Simpson, initially denied the request for a preliminary injunction in August, saying the plaintiffs did not show that "disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable." But the Supreme Court's directions to the lower court set a much tougher standard for tolerating voter disenfranchisement than the one Simpson used.
Just before the first hearing before Simpson in July, state officials announced their intention to begin issuing the voting-only ID card because the law's opponents had argued that some people were having trouble providing the documentation necessary - such as an official birth record - to get the secure form of photo ID from the state.
Pennsylvania's new law is among the toughest in the nation. The prior law required identification only for people voting in a polling place for the first time and it allowed non-photo documents such as utility bills or bank statements. The new law requires each voter to show a particular form of photo ID, such as a driver's license, passport, active duty military identification, nursing home ID or college student ID.