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PA judge rejects challenge to voter ID law

Even though Pennsylvania officials offered no evidence that in-person voter fraud has tainted past elections -- or is likely to occur this fall -- a state court judge ruled Wednesday that challengers of a new photo ID requirement failed to meet the legal requirement to get it put on hold.

Lawyers for the challengers say they will immediately appeal, hoping to get enforcement of the law stopped before the presidential election on Nov. 6.

"I am not convinced any qualified elector need be disenfranchised" by the law, said Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, a Republican, in denying a request for a court order to stop enforcement of Pennsylvania's Act 18, passed by the legislature in March. It requires voters to present a photo ID at the polling place in order to vote.

Several voting rights groups, including the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, joined with a group of state residents to claim that the law would force thousands of people to say home on election day because they lack the kinds of ID cards required by the new law.

At most, Judge Simpson said, the percentage of registered voters in the state without a qualifying photo ID "is somewhat more than 1% and significantly less than 9%." 

But he said that with the availability of absentee voting, the right of a person without photo ID to cast a provisional ballot, and the opportunities for those with special hardships to seek individual help from the courts, he was not convinced that any of those who filed the lawsuits or the witnesses they called will be prevented from voting.

The judge also said the challengers failed to meet the legal test required to mount what's known as a facial challenge to a law -- a claim that the law on its face is unconstitutional.  "They do not acknowledge the extremely rigorous legal standard for facial challenges requiring a demonstration that there are no set of circumstances under which the statute may be valid."

Similar efforts to stop voter ID laws in other states have been unsuccessful in federal court, which is one reason why the challengers in Pennsylvania decided to sue in state court by claiming that the law there violated the state constitution.

While opponents of the law are hoping they can prevail on appeal in the state courts, one election law expert believes today's ruling will ultimately survive.

"The decision is almost certain to stand," said professor Rick Hasen of the UC Irvine School of Law, author of "The Voting Wars."

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, he said, is divided 3-3 between Democrats and Republicans, who are likely to support today's ruling.

But even if they did split along party lines, Hasen said, "a 3-3 tie leaves the lower court opinion in place. I don't expect there would be any fuller ruling on the merits in this case before November, or that any such ruling would lead to a different result."