By Barbara Goldberg and Dan Burns, Reuters
HARRISBURG, Pa. - A Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday signaled he may block at least part of the state’s controversial voter identification law as he weighs a closely watched case that could influence Election Day turnout in the battleground state.
At the conclusion of a full day of hearings on the matter, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson asked attorneys for the state and for the civil rights and voting rights groups challenging the law what each side would include in any injunction he might issue.
“I’m going to ask both sides what the injunction should look like,” Simpson told the attorneys at the end of the first day of what is scheduled to be a two-day re-hearing. “I’m giving you a heads up. I need input from people who have been working on this longer than I have.”
Simpson, who upheld the law in August, called the hearing on orders from the state’s highest court to reconsider his ruling. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week told him to decide by October 2 whether voters have “liberal access” to the mandated IDs, and if they don’t, to block the law before the November 6 election.
National attention is focused on the court battle over the law passed in March by the Republican-led Legislature without a single Democratic vote, as similar fights over potential voter disenfranchisement by ID laws are waged in Texas and South Carolina.
Critics say the Pennsylvania law is designed to keep minority voters, who typically vote Democratic, away from the polls. Supporters of the voter ID law say it is aimed at ensuring that only those legally eligible to vote cast ballots.
Pennsylvania is a major electoral prize in the election between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
The law says that all voters must show either a state driver’s license, government employee ID or a state non-driver ID card to vote.
JUDGE SIGNALS SWIFT RULING
The hearing will resume on Thursday, and Simpson indicated he will rule shortly afterward.
“I am not of the mind to wait until the last minute. The sooner the better,” Simpson said.
Commonwealth attorney Alfred Putnam said he had hoped the Pennsylvania Department of State’s move on Tuesday to make getting an ID easier would be enough to avoid a permanent injunction. The department said voters would be able to get its voting-only card without having to comply with the new law’s requirement to show two proofs of residency.
“We concluded after the Supreme Court’s decision came down that if we didn’t change that one aspect that there would be an injunction,” Putnam told reporters after the day’s hearing adjourned.
Attorneys who have been fighting to stop the law said they would advise the judge to block it in its entirety.
“We’re going to ask that the law be enjoined, that they not enforce the law until after a full trial on the merits,” said lead attorney David Gersch.
Gersch, who plans to call about a dozen witness when the hearing resumes on Thursday, said Tuesday’s changes by the state come too late to be meaningful with Election Day exactly six weeks away.
“The General Assembly never intended (for people) to be given five weeks to get ID. They intended that you have seven-and-a-half months, from March 14,” Gersch said.
Tuesday’s proceedings featured testimony from three state officials, including a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation executive who said fears that the law placed an unfair burden on residents were overblown.
Kurt Myers, the department’s deputy secretary, said about 11,000 voters have gotten the mandated ID cards and thousands more were set to get theirs before the election.
“We’re in the business of issuing IDs, not denying IDs,” Myers told Simpson.
Civil rights activists were encouraged by the judge’s comments.
“We are cautiously optimistic that the court will file an injunction against the voter ID law,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement.