In recent weeks, in states from Florida to Ohio to New Hampshire, courts have blocked new laws passed by Republicans that restrict the right to vote for young, minority, elderly, disabled and low-income voters. A major exception to that trend had been Pennsylvania, where GOP House majority leader Mike Turzai famously predicted that the state’s voter ID law was “going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” But on October 2, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, thwarted Turzai’s hopes by ruling that voters in Pennsylvania did not have to show a government-approved ID in order to cast a ballot in the November election.
To paraphrase Mitt Romney, Judge Simpson’s ruling was an inelegant solution to an inelegant problem. He initially upheld the law on August 15—a decision the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated nearly a month later. The higher court sent the case back to Simpson, telling him to issue a preliminary injunction against the law unless he could conclude there would be “no voter disenfranchisement” as a result of it. But Judge Simpson rightfully could not reach that conclusion; according to his estimates, 1 to 9 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania did not have a valid ID—somewhere in the range of 100,000 to 500,000 people by conservative estimates—yet the state had issued only 13,000 voter IDs since the law went into effect in March. A significant number of eligible voters in Pennsylvania were going to be disenfranchised if the law remained in effect.
Simpson didn’t strike the law, but he also chose not to require its enforcement, pending a full trial after the election. Poll workers can still ask for ID, but voters don’t have to show it—a temporary victory for voting rights advocates, albeit a confusing one. There’s no guarantee that the thousands of Pennsylvania poll workers will administer the law in a consistent manner. “Will there be a uniform way of asking people for identification so that we don’t see racial profiling in the voting booth?” asks Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, one of the lead attorneys challenging the law.
Some eligible voters will be wrongly told they need ID to cast a ballot, while other voters will stay home because they mistakenly think they need a form of ID that they don’t have. “I think it’s still going to be pretty chaotic on election day,” says Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of 70, a good-government group in Philadelphia that organized the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition to help people get IDs. “Our focus right now is trying to minimize the confusion.” The coalition plans to recruit thousands of election protection volunteers on election day to help make sure every eligible voter is able to cast a ballot. “We don’t want all our attention to voter ID to have been for naught,” says Joe Certaine, the lead organizer in the coalition and a former managing director of the City of Philadelphia. “What this has done is raise consciousness about the electoral process.”
The Pennsylvania ruling had larger national significance. It was one of ten rulings in the past year by state or federal courts that have stalled Republican voter suppression efforts since the 2010 elections, including in crucial swing states like Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin. The courts have blocked voter ID laws (Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin), limits on voter registration drives (Florida), cutbacks to early voting (Ohio), partisan voter purges (Iowa), hurdles to student voting (New Hampshire) and the disqualification of provisional ballots (Ohio). If 2011 was the year when more than a dozen states passed new voter restrictions, 2012 was the year the courts struck back.