The half-dozen members of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will soon determine whether the state’s new voter identification law stays or goes, and two Northeast residents will be among those making the all-important decision.
The six justices will gather on Thursday, Sept. 13, in Room 456 of Philadelphia City Hall to hear oral arguments on voter ID. Afterward, they will also hear an appeal on another big case, legislative redistricting.
Arguments on voter ID are expected to begin at 9:30 a.m. Doors open at 8:30 a.m., and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. The entire session will be broadcast live on Pennsylvania Cable Network.
The justices can take their time ruling on the redistricting case. New boundary lines for Senate and House districts won’t be in place until the 2014 elections.
The voter ID decision, however, will probably come soon, since Election Day is fast-approaching on Nov. 6.
Chief Justice Ron Castille, a Rhawnhurst Republican, leads the court. He’s joined by Justice Seamus McCaffery, a Bustleton Democrat. Both Castille and McCaffery declined to be interviewed for this article.
Also sitting for the arguments will be Justices Thomas Saylor, Michael Eakin, Max Baer and Debra Todd. A seventh member, Joan Orie Melvin, is suspended as she faces charges that she used judicial staff to help her campaign.
Most observers believe the final vote will be either 3-3 or 4-2, with Castille casting the swing vote. If the court ends in a 3-3 deadlock, the voter ID law, which was enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, will remain in place.
Courts are not supposed to be political, but Democrats McCaffery, Baer and Todd are expected to vote to strike down the law.
McCaffery, 62, is a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and 1968 graduate of Cardinal Dougherty High School. He was a Philadelphia police officer for 20 years and served in the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force Reserve. He was elected to Municipal Court in 1993 and was best known for handling nuisance night court and Eagles Court at the old Veterans Stadium. He was elected to Superior Court in 2003 and Supreme Court in 2007.
Republicans Saylor and Eakin are expected to vote to uphold the law.
Then there’s Castille, 68. He’s a former Philadelphia district attorney, elected in 1985 and re-elected in 1989. He resigned to run for mayor in 1991, but lost the GOP primary to former Mayor Frank L. Rizzo. Castille was elected to the Supreme Court two years later and was elevated to chief justice in 2008. He remains the last Republican to win a citywide race.
Castille came to Philadelphia after suffering serious injuries during the Vietnam War. He lost his right leg and spent 10 months recovering at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital in South Philadelphia. He later earned a law degree from the University of Virginia and became an assistant district attorney before winning the top job.
CASTILLE SIDES WITH DEMS
In January, Castille stunned the state political establishment by siding with the court’s Democrats to reject the Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s redistricting plan.
Many of the appeals in that case were brought by Democrats, who thought the plan favored the GOP.
As for voter ID, many Democrats see it as a way to depress their vote in the presidential election, where Pennsylvania is an important swing state, and in future races. They claim the law will have the biggest impact on minorities and the poor, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Republicans maintain that the law is meant to guard against voter fraud.
Opponents of the law appealed to Commonwealth Court, but Judge Robert Simpson refused to issue an injunction.
“Petitioners did not establish, however, that disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable,” he wrote in a 70-page opinion.
The NAACP, the Homeless Advocacy Project and other petitioners have appealed that ruling to Supreme Court. Supporting the petitioners are the state AFL-CIO, city elections commissioner Stephanie Singer and others.
Gregory Harvey, chairman of public election law practice at the firm Montgomery McCracken, is not the counsel to the petitioners, but he has read and commented on their brief. Harvey is co-chairman of the 8th Ward Democratic Committee in Center City. He acknowledges that “few, if any” voters in his ward lack voter identification.
The veteran attorney notes that supporters of the law have failed to produce any evidence of voter fraud.
Republicans have proposed voter ID laws in other states, and Harvey thinks the GOP can benefit at the polls.
“This is intended to limit the Democratic vote and allow Mitt Romney to win the election,” he said.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai has said as much – telling the Republican State Committee that Romney has a better chance to defeat President Barack Obama in Pennsylvania because of the law. Nonetheless, in the wake of Simpson’s ruling, he said state agencies will implement the law in a non-partisan, even-handed manner.
“It’s about one person, one vote, and each instance of fraud dilutes legitimate votes,” he said. “It is unfortunate, but there has been a history of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. The elections in the commonwealth will be on a more level playing field thanks to voter ID and other recent election reforms.”
ID NEEDED AT THE POLLS
To vote this year, individuals will have to show photo identification at their polling places. They can produce a driver’s license or non-driver’s license; a passport; an active duty or retired military ID card; government employee card; college identification issued to students, employees and alumni; or ID cards issued by care facilities.
Individuals who do not have these forms of identification can go to a PennDOT driver’s license center to obtain a free photo identification card. They must supply a Social Security card and either a birth certificate or passport, along with two proofs of residency, such as a lease agreement, mortgage documents, W-2 form, tax records or current utility bills.
And for anyone who cannot secure a photo ID card from PennDOT, they can still apply for a new Pennsylvania Department of State voter card. Those free cards are available at driver’s license centers. Individuals must provide two proofs of residence, such as a utility bill, along with their date of birth and Social Security number. Once a PennDOT clerk validates the person’s voter registration status with the Department of State, the individual will receive the card on the spot. It’s good for 10 years.
“This new ID serves as a safety net for those who can’t find or obtain verification documents normally required for a PennDOT secure identification card,” said Barry J. Schoch, PennDOT secretary.
In all, there are about 8.2 million registered voters in Pennsylvania.
PennDOT and the Department of State compared lists, and the figures showed that there are almost 759,000 more voters than those who have a PennDOT-issued identification card. In an examination of the 14 wards in the Northeast, about 38,000 people are on the voting list, but not the PennDOT one.
Opponents of the new law cite those figures to argue that people will be disenfranchised.
QUESTIONS ABOUT NUMBERS
Supporters of the law say the figures are inflated. Even Simpson, the Commonwealth Court judge, wrote in his opinion that he was “skeptical” about the statewide number.
Almost 168,000 people on the list have not voted since 2007, a good sign that most of them have died or moved. Others have ID not issued by PennDOT. And others are on the list by error, because their names don’t exactly match when comparing both lists, either because of a misplaced apostrophe, a nickname, middle initial, etc.
Whatever the accurate figure is, Pennsylvanians don’t seem to be breaking down the doors of PennDOT driver’s licensing centers to get an ID. PennDOT spokeswoman Jan McKnight said the latest figures from her office show that 7,226 people have gotten photo identification cards since the law passed in March, and a mere 472 people have gotten the voting-only card since it became available on Aug. 27.
Most outreach efforts to get voters the appropriate ID seem to be centered in areas such as North and West Philadelphia, where turnout is crucial to Democratic victories.
The Northeast seems to be quiet, at least for now, when it comes to any extensive effort to get residents to obtain ID.
On Sept. 27, the Rhawnhurst Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) will welcome the Committee of Seventy to its monthly luncheon meeting to explain the voter ID issue to guests age 60 and older. The gathering is set for noon at Rhawnhurst Presbyterian Church, at 7701 Loretto Ave., and the topic will come up again at the group’s October meeting.
“There’s a certain level of confusion about what they actually need to do,” NORC program manager Abby Gilbert said of people complying with the law. “We want to make sure they have the information they need so they are not surprised when they get to the polls.” ••
Anyone in need of photo identification to vote can visit any of PennDOT’s 71 driver’s licensing centers. Only one, at 919-B Levick St. in Oxford Circle, is located in the Northeast. Other close ones are at 4201 Neshaminy Blvd. in Bensalem and 2022 County Line Road in Huntingdon Valley. The stand-alone photo centers in Mayfair Shopping Center and Hendrix Shopping Center in Somerton do not offer the service.
For more information, call the Department of State toll-free at 1-877-868-3772.