Pennsylvania becomes ground zero for voter ID issue

The current legal battle in Pennsylvania over its tough voter ID law could have national implications in the fight between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in November.

Hearings in Harrisburg, the state capital, will end this week. A judge will rule by August 13 on a case involving one of the toughest voter ID laws in the country.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law, saying that it didn’t impose “excessively burdensome requirements” on voters.

The requirements of the Pennsylvania legislation, backed by Republican Governor Tom Corbett, forces voters without a driver’s license or government-issued photo ID to get a different ID card, by physically going to a state office and showing other multiple forms of identification.

The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting the law in Pennsylvania’s court system.

Judge Robert Simpson is hearing arguments from state officials and the ACLU, including a video deposition from a 94-year-old woman and a transgender voter,  who both say the new law will make it difficult to get ID cards.

Another star witness, 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite, is the lead plaintiff, claiming she can’t get the basic documents from the state to vote, despite repeated attempts.

After Judge Simpson rules on the case, it will be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which might be unable to rule on the case.

Justice Joan Orie Melvin is suspended from the court as she fights various election campaign charges. The remaining six justices on the court are three Democrats and three Republicans. If there is a deadlock, the court couldn’t overturn Simpson’s ruling.

The case is important for two reasons.

First, if the law is upheld, it would set a new standard for voter ID laws already in place in other states, many of which were championed by Republican leaders.

And for the Obama campaign, the tougher law could put Pennsylvania back in play as a swing state that could conceivably go to Romney.

In this week’s testimony, officials said an estimated 750,000 to 1.5 million voters in Pennsylvania might lack the IDs needed to vote in November.

In 2008, a record 6 million out of 8.7 million registered voters in Pennsylvania took part in the presidential election.

As of this week, 8.2 million people are registered to vote, with just 43 percent registered as Republicans.

Those numbers would put between 9 and 18 percent of Pennsylvania voters in need of a voter ID cards to go to the polls.

Democrats say the voter ID laws mostly affect people who live in urban areas, minorities, and the poor, many of whom traditionally vote for their party.

The numbers appear to back up that theory. According to data from PoliticsPa, about 43 percent of voters in the city of Philadelphia and the urban areas near it don’t have state-issued driver’s ID cards, out of 976,000 registered voters.

Currently, President Obama leads Mitt Romney by about 6 percent in recent polls in Pennsylvania. Losing a huge number of voters in Democratic strongholds would definitely put the Keystone State back in play.

In fact, a key piece of evidence in the current court case is a recording of state GOP leader Mike Turzai bragging at a GOP gathering that the voter ID law would give the state to Romney on Election Day.

And because of the publicity the case is getting in the state and nationally, the Democrats could use the issue against the GOP this fall, and not only in Pennsylvania.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has already outraged Republicans by equating voter ID laws to the dreaded poll tax during segregation, and the NAACP has been at the Harrisburg hearings.

If Pennsylvania’s tough laws stand for the election, expect the Democrats to make it a national issue.

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