Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, declined to issue an injunction against the state’s new voter ID law in a ruling today, despite the preponderance of evidence that the new law is unjust, unnecessary and discriminatory. (See my “Ten Takeaways From Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Trial” for background on the case.)
Simpson sided with the state on a challenge brought by the ACLU and the Advancement Project. He acknowledged that “petitioners’ counsel did an excellent job of ‘putting a face’ to those burdened by the voter ID requirement,” but concluded that “petitioners did not establish, however, that disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable.” On the contrary, Simpson asserted that the law’s “provisions are neutral and nondiscriminatory and apply uniformly to all voters,” and that he “was convinced that [the law] will be implemented by commonwealth agencies in a non-partisan, even-handed manner.”
Instead of forcing the state to prove that the voter ID law was necessary, Simpson put the burden of proof on the plaintiffs’ to show that the law violated the state constitution, which he said they failed to do. “Any party challenging a legislative enactment has a heavy burden, and legislation will not be invalidated unless it clearly, patently and plainly violated the constitution of this commonwealth,” he wrote. “Any doubts are to be resolved in favor of a finding of constitutionality.”
This was a head-scratching ruling, and one at odds with state courts in Missouri and Wisconsin, which found that voter ID laws restricted the fundamental right to vote of citizens. Instead, Simpson relied on a controversial 2008 ruling by the Supreme Court in Crawford v. Marion County, which upheld Indiana’s voter ID law even though the state failed to provide any evidence of in-person voter fraud to justify the law. Pennsylvania, like Indiana, stipulated at the beginning of the voter ID trial that “there have been no investigations or prosecutions of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania; and the parties do not have direct personal knowledge of any such investigations or prosecutions in other states.” But in the Crawford case the Supreme Court found that the mere threat of voter fraud was enough to justify a voter ID law, which set a chilling precedent for voting rights advocates. (That “threat” is virtually nonexistent. A major investigation from 2002–07 by the Bush Justice Department failed to prosecute a single case of in-person voter impersonation. There were thirty-nine times as many deaths by lightning from 2000–07 as there were instances of voter impersonation.)
Despite the Crawford ruling, it’s hard to take seriously Simpson’s claim that the Pennsylvania voter ID law is nonpartisan and nondiscriminatory.