(AP) Pa.'s tough, new voter ID law lands in court
By MARC LEVY
The first legal test for Pennsylvania's tough new voter identification law started Wednesday, with state lawyers calling the measure a completely rational step while opponents attacked it as an unnecessary, unjustified and partisan scheme that violates the constitution.
Lawyers delivered their opening statements to Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who must decide whether to block the law from taking effect in this year's election as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.
The plaintiffs include people who say they may be unable to get the kind of photo identification that the new law would require for their vote to count. The law is the subject of a furious debate over voting rights as Pennsylvania is poised to play a key role in deciding the Nov. 6 presidential election.
David Gersh, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said that the law, by any measure, will make it more difficult for a large number of people to exercise their right to vote and that the justification for the law _ to prevent election fraud _ is a pretext. The real purpose of the law is for partisan advantage, Gersh said.
"That is not under any circumstances a compelling state interest," Gersh told Simpson.
One of the plaintiffs, Vivian Applewhite, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1960 and has voted regularly for years, but she does not have a valid photo ID under the law and is unable to secure a birth certificate that would help her get one, her lawyers say.
Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley responded that the state is taking pains to create new ways of getting identification, and that it has removed a great number of barriers to people who would want to vote. On Election Day, anyone who wants to vote will have an ID card that allows them to do so, he said.
"In this day and age, nothing could be more rational than requiring a photo ID when voters come to the polls," Cawley said.
Simpson said he hoped to rule during the week of Aug. 13 and expected that his decision would be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which would have the final say. More testimony was expected Wednesday.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama's Department of Justice is looking at whether the law complies with federal laws and on Monday asked state election officials for a long list of information about it.
The law was passed earlier this year by the Republican-controlled state Legislature without a single "yes" vote from a Democratic lawmaker and signed in March by GOP Gov. Tom Corbett.
Republicans maintained then that the law is necessary to prevent election fraud, and that photo identification is a commonly required part of daily commerce. But Democrats say it's an election-year scheme to steal the White House _ a contention inflamed when the state House Republican floor leader told a state party meeting in June that it would allow GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania in the fall.
Democrats also contend that there's no track record of fraud that it would prevent, and the existence of voter fraud will not be argued in the court hearing.
The law says voters must show an eligible photo ID card for their votes to be counted. It is a significant departure from current law, which asks only people voting in a ward for the first time to show identification, including such non-photo forms as a utility bill or bank statement.
About one-third of Pennsylvania's 8.3 million voters are unaware of the new state photo ID law, and at least 1 million lack the documents they need to take to the polls for their votes to count, lawyers challenging the law say.
Cawley insisted that people who may lack the eligible ID will have had almost eight months since the law was enacted to get one before the election.