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Opinion: Voter ID Laws Saw a Setback this Week, But the War Rages On

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A voter arrives at a polling station on primary day in Tampa, Florida.

Six weeks ago, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court issued a wrongheaded ruling upholding that state’s new voter ID law. On appeal, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sent the case back for further review. 

This time, the Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson, Jr., has arrived at a slightly more rational rationale. The decision he issued last Tuesday should greatly reduce the risk of disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of registered Pennsylvania voters—those who happen not to drive, for example, or have not otherwise needed a state-issued photo identification card before this election cycle.

Let’s be clear precisely which voters we are talking about: Poor voters. Elderly voters. Black and brown voters. Students. Voters who are ill or infirm. With Judge Simpson’s new ruling, these folks will not be forced to travel to state bureaucratic offices, simply to wait in line for hours, all for a card they will use only for one purpose – to exercise their right to vote. 

National Public Radio’s Pam Fessler explored the difficulties of obtaining a voter I.D. card in the state, in this eye-opening piece last month, in which she accompanied two women battling the bureaucracy as they sought to obtain the proper identification in advance of Judge Simpson’s decision to invalidate the requirement that they do so.

So what did Judge Simpson say? His ruling precludes election officials from requiring registered voters to show the new state photo identification card in order to get access to a regular ballot. That is because voter disenfranchisement was occurring -- and would have continued to occur -- had the new law been enforced in this election cycle. Like the law in South Carolina about which I wrote last week, the November contest is simply too close for comfort, he decided.

But don’t pop the bubbly, just yet. Because here is what the judge did not say? He did not say the voter ID law in Pennsylvania is unconstitutional on its face.  He did not say the measure illegally burdens voters. In other words, Judge Simpson’s ruling on Tuesday does not mean the fight in Pennsylvania is over for good.

Republicans are vowing to salvage the law. After Judge Simpson, a Republican himself, issued his decision, officials with the GOP immediately said they will continue to back the law, despite its undemocratic underpinnings and the obvious intent to keep certain kinds of registered voters from polls.

Every war is won battle by battle, however. And Pennsylvania just bought itself some time to fully litigate the effects of this law without the pressure of a national election hanging in the balance.

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." The quote is widely attributed to that greatest of all Pennsylvanians, Ben Franklin and in this context means that true freedom requires the right to vote for all Americans be protected from the "wolves" of Democratic government and the majority.