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Today the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated a ruling upholding the state’s controversial Voter ID law, ordering a lower court to ascertain whether voters actually have liberal and easy access to the required photo IDs.

The law, purportedly created to combat voter fraud, has been criticized by voting rights advocates who contend that it will disenfranchise thousands of voters who will have difficulty obtaining the right kind of identification. The groups that would be most affected — such as the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and racial minorities — tend to reliably vote Democratic.

In August, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson ruled the law constitutional, stating that it was “neutral, nondiscriminatory, and applies uniformly to all voters.” Today’s four to two decision by the state Supreme Court returns the case to Judge Simpson’s court for further review.

Despite its potential to be a significant factor in November’s election, Pennsylvania’s voter ID law’s ultimate fate remains uncertain. The high court has requested Judge Simpson’s opinion by October 2. If Simpson finds that the ID’s can be easily obtained, and voters will have no difficulty casting a ballot on Election Day, then the state Supreme Court will let the law stand.

Addressing questions of ID accessibility, the high court wrote the following in its decision (emphasis added):

The Law contemplates that the primary form of photo identification to be used by voters is a Department of Transportation (PennDOT) driver’s license or the non-driver equivalent provided under Section 1510(b) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. § 1510(b). Furthermore, the Law specifically requires that – notwithstanding provisions of Section 1510(b) relating to the issuance and content of the cards – PennDOT shall issue them at no cost . . . . As such, the Law establishes a policy of liberal access to Section 1510(b) identification cards.

However, as implementation of the Law has proceeded, PennDOT – apparently for good reason – has refused to allow such liberal access. Instead, the Department continues to vet applicants for Section 1510(b) cards through an identification process that Commonwealth officials appear to acknowledge is a rigorous one. 

Generally, the process requires the applicant to present a birth certificate with a raised seal (or a document considered to be an equivalent), a social security card, and two forms of documentation showing current residency. 

The criticism, mainly from Democrats, is that such a “rigorous” identification process is sure to dissuade voters of lesser means from the ballot box. Meanwhile, Republicans like the House Majority Leader of Pennsylvania, Mike Turzai, openly admit that the Voter ID law will be instrumental in helping presidential candidate Mitt Romney win the state.

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