Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Understanding the Pennsylvania Voter ID ruling

October 2, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


A Pennsylvania commonwealth judge has issued a partial injunction on Tuesday that will likely block voter ID laws from the state's November election. But the issue is far from over.

To be sure, the state’s Voter ID law isn’t dead, and a higher court could overturn the ruling. And there was no ruling on the constitutionality of the law.

Link: Read The Full Ruling

Judge Robert Simpson faced a Tuesday deadline from the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court to decide if he found any possible disenfranchisement cases related to the application of the law.

Simpson issued what amounts to a temporary, partial injunction that remains in effect until December.

Bottom line: For now, voters in Pennsylvania without valid photo ID cards don’t have to apply for free ID cards from the state.

When they go to the polls in November, they will still be asked for a photo ID card. If they don’t have one, they can still vote as provisional voters in the voting booth.

Judge Simpson also has waived a requirement that provisional voters provide an approved ID within six days after the election’s end.

The judge said he was extending the process used in the primary elections until December.

"In Section 10 of Act 18, the General Assembly explained that during the first elections after its passage, an otherwise qualified elector who does not provide proof of identification may cast a ballot that shall be counted without the necessity of casting a provisional ballot," Simpson said.

"The injunction will have the effect of extending the express transition provisions of Act 18 through the general election."

The judge said that his injunction was only for part of the new Voter ID law about the provisional ballots and the injunction has a shelf life for just the November election.

And the state can keep on educating voters about the Voter ID program, since the program’s ultimate fate hasn’t been settled. Judge Simpson also said the state exceeded expectations with its efforts to educate voters in its outreach programs.

“These existing structural improvements, together with the proposed enhanced access to the DOS ID and additional time, will place the Commonwealth in a better position going forward,” he said.

Simpson said that it was the factor of the election’s timing in five weeks’ time that led to the partial, preliminary injunction.

“Consequently, I am not still convinced in my predictive judgment that there will be no voter disenfranchisement arising out of the Commonwealth’s implementation of a voter identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election. Under these circumstances, I am obliged to enter a preliminary injunction,” he said.

The state could still appeal the ruling to its own Supreme Court.

But that court had returned the case to Simpson on September 19, asking him to issue an injunction if he thought any eligible voter wouldn’t be able to cast a vote, because of the state’s requirements to obtain a free voter ID before the November election.

The state Supreme Court ruled, in a 4-2 vote, that Simpson should issue an injunction, if voter access was inhibited because of “the Commonwealth's implementation of a voter-identification requirement for purposes of the upcoming election.”

Since then, the administration of Governor Tom Corbett relaxed some of the voter ID requirements.

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court has six voting justices (a seventh judge is suspended) who are divided on party lines. So even if the current case is heard on appeal, a decision isn’t likely to affect Judge Simpson’s ruling, unless two justices change their opinions from the September 19 ruling.

The next step for Simpson’s court is a meeting on December 13th to discuss the case for a permanent injunction. So for now, the Pennsylvania voter ID law is on hold until after the November election.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

Recent Constitution Daily Stories

Five biggest political polling mistakes in U.S. history Four ways Mitt Romney can still win the election Supreme Court meets under a shadow

Sign up for our email newsletter