The state’s controversial new voter ID law will come up for state Supreme Court review this week, less than 60 days before the Nov. 6 presidential election.
No matter what the court decides, its decision will be historic.
“This will have a huge impact,” said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, one of the parties who sued the state in an effort to block implementation of the law.
Oral arguments open at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at city hall and will be broadcast on PCN. They are expected to last about two hours.
Politically, the court’s decision could shape the presidential election.
“That’s why we’ve been fighting so hard for this,” Mondesire said. In terms of civil rights, he added that should the court uphold the law, it would be “a step backward for the state of Pennsylvania.”
Both sides have already filed their legal briefs, laying their basic arguments before the court.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs — who oppose the law — argued that the law will disenfranchise many and that it is unnecessary because the state has failed to prove that there is any substantive voter fraud in Pennsylvania.
The attorney general’s office argued that the ID is free and that the state has sponsored a state-wide publicity campaign, and so the law will not deprive any citizens of their right to vote.
The court’s decision, unlikely to end the court battle over the law, is crucial because it will determine the rules for the upcoming election.
“We could go to federal court, but it would take too long to wind its way through the system,” Mondesire said. “This is it.”
Opponents of the law charge that it is discriminatory and will disenfranchise minorities, the old, the poor and young voters. Supporters argue that it’s needed to prevent voter fraud. Those arguments break down largely along party lines – with Democrats typically opposing the law and Republicans supporting it.
With Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican, suspended – the court’s justices are evenly divided in terms of party affiliation. Should the court deadlock, the law will stand.
“If they split, the lower court is affirmed,” Mondesire said.
That does not mean that the legal battle over the law will end — though it will be too late for Election Day in November.
In an interview with the Tribune last month, Ben Geffen, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said that another suit could come after Election Day when voter information could be used to argue against the law. Mondesire said the NAACP would also pursue legal action after Election Day if need be.
“If it’s upheld we will take it to federal court after Nov. 6,” he said. “It needs to be resisted until it’s overturned.”
In addition, the law has sparked an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. If that results in court action the law could be challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Already the law has survived one court challenge.
In August, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson denied a request by several voter advocate groups – including the NAACP.
“I am not convinced that any qualified elector need be disenfranchised by Act 18,” Simpson wrote in a 62-page opinion that denied a temporary injunction, which would have delayed implementation of the new law until after Nov. 6.
The legislature, Simpson said, has the authority to oversee elections as long as rules are applied equally to all citizens, he said, adding that he could find no evidence that the law would prove to be more of a barrier for one segment of the population then for others.
A number of analyses have suggested that the law could have a disproportionate impact on Black and Latino voters. Numbers compiled by the Tribune suggested that 39 percent of Black and Latino active voters – as many as 152,000 and 37,000 people respectively – in Philadelphia could be disenfranchised by the law. That compared to 20 percent of white voters.