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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Judge Blocks Pa.’s Strict New Voter ID Law

In this file photo people pass the signs telling of the requirement for voters to show an acceptable photo ID to vote as they head into the the Penndot Drivers License Center in Butler, Pa. (AP)

In this file photo people pass the signs telling of the requirement for voters to show an acceptable photo ID to vote as they head into the the Penndot Drivers License Center in Butler, Pa. (AP)

A judge postponed Pennsylvania’s controversial voter identification requirement on Tuesday, ordering the state not to enforce it in this year’s presidential election but allowing it to go into full effect next year.

The decision by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson on the law requiring each voter to show a valid photo ID could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

However, Simpson based his decision on guidelines given to him days ago by the high court justices, and it could easily be the final word on the law just five weeks before the Nov. 6 election.

One lawyer for the plaintiffs said it appeared to be a “win.”

His ruling came after listening to two days of testimony about the state’s eleventh-hour efforts to make it easier to get a valid photo ID. He also heard about long lines and ill-informed clerks at driver’s license centers and identification requirements that made it hard for some registered voters to get a state-issued photo ID.

The 6-month-old law – now among the nation’s toughest – has sparked a divisive debate over voting rights and become a high-profile political issue in the contest between President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, for Pennsylvania’s prized 20 electoral votes.

Pennsylvania, traditionally considered one of the most valuable a presidential swing states, is showing a persistent lead for President Barack Obama in independent polls. As a result, the state has been virtually empty of presidential TV ads and off the candidates’ beaten paths to more contested states in recent weeks.

Pollsters say an identification requirement could mean that fewer people end up voting and, in the past, lower turnouts have benefited Republicans in Pennsylvania. But Democrats have used their opposition to the law as a rallying cry, turning it into a valuable tool to motivate volunteers and campaign contributions while other opponents of the law, including labor unions, good government groups, the NAACP, AARP and the League of Women Voters, hold voter education drives and protest rallies.

The voter ID law was a signature accomplishment of Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature and its Republican governor, Tom Corbett. Republicans, long suspicious of ballot-box stuffing in the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia, justified it as a bulwark against any potential election fraud.

But Democrats objected furiously, accusing Republicans of using old-fashioned Jim Crow tactics to steal the White House from Obama by making it harder for young adults, the poor, minorities and the disabled to vote.

Protests, warnings of Election Day chaos and voter education drives ensued, as the law’s opponents – including the AARP, the NAACP and labor unions – began collecting stories of people who had no valid photo ID and had encountered stiff barriers in their efforts to get one from state driver’s license centers.

It was already a political lightning rod when a top state Republican lawmaker boasted to a GOP dinner in June that the ID requirement “is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law in 2008, and Georgia’s top court upheld that state’s voter ID law. But a federal panel struck down Texas’ voter ID law, and the state court in Wisconsin has blocked its voter ID laws for now. The Justice Department cleared New Hampshire’s voter ID law earlier this year.

The plaintiffs – a group of registered voters, plus the Homeless Advocacy Project, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – had sought to block the law from taking effect in this year’s election as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.

The constitutionality of the law was not a question before Simpson.

Rather, the state Supreme Court had ordered him to stop the law if he thought anyone eligible would be unable to cast a ballot because of it or if he found the state had not complied with law’s promise of providing liberal access to a photo ID that voters were required to carry on Election Day.

Last week, the Corbett administration overhauled the process for getting a voting-only ID card – an admission that the state had not met the Supreme Court’s test for whether the law should stand.


  • John Micek, State House reporter for the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania
  • Rick Klein, senior Washington editor for ABC News

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • PoliticsWatcher

    Horay!  Sometimes judges do the right thing.  Too bad he did the wrong thing first, and the state supreme court had to set him straight.

  • d_arcy_2

    When voter ID was first enacted in my state (under a Democratic gov.) I was a bit put out that election workers whom I knew personally would be required to ask for my ID.  Now I generally just show my passport, which flusters the newbies a bit.

    But in the PA case, the complaint seems to be that it takes “too much time” to get ID.  When was the law enacted?  Surely it wasn’t just a few weeks ago.  Given six months or a year to get an ID can people really not do it?

    • Jamesaz

      In Arizona, a U.S. passport is not considered a valid I.D. to vote unless you also have utility bills with your address. Even your voter registration card, which does have your address, is not valid as it does not have your photo. Voter I.D. laws are a solution to a non existing problem. They, like naming a state gun and many other silly laws, allow lawmakers to act like they have done something when all they’ve really done is avoid making difficult decisions and doing the jobs they were elected to do.

  • jsallen

    Robin Young announced at the top of the hour that a topic on today’s program would be “is it possible that not wearing helmets makes bicycling safer?”

    The anser is, of course, no. The claim which usually underlies this argument is that if people don’t have to wear a helmet, then more people will ride bicycles, motorists will become more attentive, and voilà, bicycling will be safer. There also is a health claim.

    Let’s consider a parallel example: “is it possible that not wearing a lifejacket makes canoeing safer?” And here is the supposed logic, as applied to canoeing: if people aren’t encumbered with having to purchase and wear a lifejacket, then more people will take up canoeing, people in powerboats will then be more attentive about avoiding colliding with canoes — and so canoeing will become safer. Also, the health benefits of canoeing to society at large will outweigh the losses through drowning, even if most people never canoe far enough or paddle hard enough to get a meaningful fitness benefit.

    Missing from this contorted  reasoning is the choice facing the *individual*.  Also, the reasoning rests on a distorted perception of risk — fearmongering turned inside out. I took canoeing as an example because it is well-known that most canoeing incidents do not involve powerboats: a canoe simply capsizes, or someone falls overboard.  Less well-known is that, over 70% of injury-producing bicycle crashes do not involve a motor vehicle. Also  in incidents which do involve a motor vehicle, a helmet often prevents or mitigates injury.

    What underlies the anti-helmet drive is social engineering by the bicycle industry, environmentalist and transportation reform interests and public-health advocates like the guest on today’s show to recruit more people to ride bicycles — and mitigation of risk to the individual bicyclist be damned. We prime the pump for increased bicycle use by disparaging helmet use, and if we have a few fatalities and permanent injuries that could have been avoided, well these are sacrifices that must be accepted in the interest of the Greater Good. The anti-helmet argument gains more adherents with the advent of municipal bike-share systems, which at the same time make access to a bicycle easier and  use of a helmet more inconvenient.

    The story on Here and Now, as I am listening to it, confuses  the issue of mandatory helmet laws
    with the issue of personal choice as to whether to wear one. Let me make it clear: I don’t support mandatory helmet laws, which aren’t enforced, yet which can impose a presumption of negligence on a bicyclist not wearing a helmet — as in “yes, the driver ran the stop sign, but you weren’t wearing a helmet, so you don’t collect on the driver’s insurance.” Because I care about my own well-being and that of my family, I wear a helmet. I recommend that other bicyclists nake the same choice

    “It’s more like walking than riding a bicycle. You’re more like a pedestrian” says your guest Elizabeth Rosenthal of typical urban cycling as she envisions it. 

    “The kind of crashes in which people fall off bikes and hurt their heads are really, really, really rare because you’re riding around at 5 miles per hour. It’s more like walking” says Rosenthal. Great. That’ll get me home in two hours.  And who will point out the bicycling is several times as efficient as walking? I’d be better off walking than riding at such a low speed, if the goal is cardiac fitness. Let me also point out that the speed at which the head strikes the
    ground depends on head height, not forward speed — and that slow-speed
    crashes are often caused by collisions while in crowds of bicyclists.

    At the end of the piece, Robin quoted someone as saying about a helmet wearer “you’re a racer. Get off city streets.” A competent and fit urban cyclist is by definition a racer? A bicyclist is going too *fast*, not even as fast as a motor scooter rider, and so should get off the street? Serious confusion reigns here.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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