By MARC LEVY and MARYCLAIRE DALE
PHILADELPHIA (AP) – With 54 days until Pennsylvanians help decide who will be president, state Supreme Court justices will listen to arguments over whether a new law requiring each voter to show valid photo identification poses an unnecessary threat to the right, and ability, to vote.
The high court appeal follows a lower court’s refusal to halt the law from taking effect Nov. 6, when voters will choose between President Barack Obama, a Democrat, Republican nominee Mitt Romney and as many as two third-party candidates. The arguments will be heard on Thursday morning.
The state’s lawyers say lawmakers properly exercised their constitutional latitude to make election-related laws and that every registered voter, including those suing, will be able to cast a ballot, either after getting a valid photo ID or by absentee ballot if they are disabled or frail.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs insist their clients, as well as hundreds of thousands of other registered voters, do not know about the complicated requirements, do not have a valid ID or will be unable to get one.
“At stake in this case is the fundamental right to vote,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued in a 58-page appeal.
The high court normally has seven members. But it will hear the politically charged case with just six – three Democrats and three Republicans – and a 3-3 deadlock would allow the lower court decision to stand. A seventh justice, a Republican, was suspended in May after being charged in a political corruption investigation.
The Republican-written requirement – justified as a bulwark against potential election fraud – was a political lightning rod even before it became law in March. It has inspired protests, warnings of Election Day chaos and voter education drives.
Democrats contend that it is designed to suppress the votes of minorities, the poor, young and others considered more likely to vote for Obama in a state whose 20 electoral votes make it a major player in electing a president.
While Pennsylvania isn’t alone – Republicans in more than a dozen states have recently advanced tougher voter identification requirements – it’s law is among the toughest in the nation.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson last month rejected the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction. In his 70-page opinion, Simpson said the plaintiffs did not show that “disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable” and, thanks to the state’s efforts, getting a valid photo ID “does not qualify as a substantial burden on the vast supermajority of registered voters.”
But lawyers for the plaintiffs say Simpson ignored state court decisions that should have convinced him that the right to vote deserves special protection against an unnecessarily strict law. They also say Simpson made no finding that the law will somehow achieve public confidence in elections, a key justification used by lawmakers who supported it.
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