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October 2, 2012

About That Voter-ID 'Defeat' in Pa.

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Some media outlets are painting today’s Pennsylvania court decision on the state’s new voter-ID law as a win for opponents of the legislation, including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. But I’m pretty sure these plaintiffs’ lawyers would privately admit that, as victories go, it’s not much to brag about. 

Indeed, once again, most of the law was upheld. The judge ordered that voters without ID still be allowed to vote in the upcoming election because, from the evidence it reviewed, it didn’t look like the new ID requirement could be fully implemented before the election. In the court’s opinion, there was not “sufficient time” for the state to implement it new policy of “liberal access” to state IDs for voters who don’t already have one because it is only “five weeks before the election.”

The court refused to issue an injunction barring local election officials from asking voters for an ID — which the NAACP and the League of Women Voters had requested. When the state legislature passed the new voter ID law, it specifically provided that the requirement “was to operate during its initial implementation” in what the court described as a “soft run.” Therefore, following the “expressed intent” of the legislature, the court held that voters without an ID will still be able to vote in the November election using a regular ballot. But the court issued no permanent injunction. Today’s preliminary injunction, the judge specified, “is limited to the upcoming election.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had remanded this case to the trial court on September 13. At the time, the Supreme Court specifically noted that the plaintiffs had “acknowledged that there is no constitutional impediment to the Commonwealth’s implementation of a voter identification requirement.”  Therefore, the only issue before the trial court was whether the law could be implemented by November 6 without disenfranchising any voters.

So, yes, today’s ruling was a temporary victory for the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, in the context of this election. But they completely failed in their main goal of getting a permanent injunction that would declare the voter-ID law unconstitutional. The court simply found that the state could not effectively implement the ID requirement in the month remaining before November 6.

The law is still in place. It remains valid even if part of it will not apply in this election. There will be a trial at some point in the future over the request for a permanent injunction, since the court announced that it would “begin planning for a trial.” But the chances seem pretty slim that the NAACP and the usual suspects who filed this suit will be able to convince the Pennsylvania courts of something they have not heretofore concluded.

— Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

First appeared in National Review Online's "The Corner."

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