PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The national debate over voter identification shifted to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court on Thursday, where justices questioned whether the state law was politically motivated and could be delayed.
About 100 demonstrators gathered outside the state’s highest court in Philadelphia to denounce the state law that challengers say will shut out thousands of minority voters.
Inside, lawyers debated just how many voters were at risk of being disenfranchised by the mandate that all voters show either a state driver’s license, government employee ID or a state non-driver ID card.
Less than two months before the November 6 election, the law remains under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal organizations, following similar battles in Texas and South Carolina.
Supporters say the law, passed by Pennsylvania’s Republican Legislature, will prevent voter fraud. Critics say its true aim is to limit minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
David Gersch, the lead attorney arguing for an injunction to stop or delay the law, told the justices the state had acknowledged there had never been in-person voter fraud, and while hundreds of thousands of voters lacked proper ID, the state was capable of issuing only 45,000 ID cards a month.
“The challenge we are raising is the fundamental right to vote,” Gersch said.
Assistant State Attorney General John Knorr, representing the state, said the number without ID was less than 89,000 and there was no evidence the necessary ID cards could not be produced.
He was peppered with questions from some of the judges on the six-member panel that will rule on the matter.
“It’s a new burden on somebody who has been voting for years or decades,” said Justice Debra McCloskey Todd.
Knorr said the burden was minimal.
“Minimal if you already have an ID,” Todd replied. She later asked: “What’s the rush? What’s the rush?”
Justice Seamus McCaffery said: “I’m looking for public harm. We have a 10-week time frame (before the election). Could it be political maybe?”
At the protest outside the courthouse, one of the speakers, civil rights advocate and Baptist Bishop Kermit Newkirk of Philadelphia, denounced the law as racially motivated.
“We never talked about voter rights until we had an African-American president,” Newkirk said. “This is wrong.”
The legal battle takes place against the backdrop of a widely reported statement by Republican House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, who was quoted as saying, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania - done.”
Turzai’s press secretary, Steve Miskin, told Reuters this week the quote was accurate but widely mischaracterized.
He said his boss, who was speaking at a party meeting in June, meant that “for the first time in many years, we are going to have a presidential race on a relatively level playing field.”
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court currently has six justices - three Democrats and three Republicans, raising the possibility of a tie. A seventh judge was suspended while she faces criminal charges of improperly using staff for political campaigns.
A tie would keep in place an earlier ruling by a lower appellate court that refused to issue an injunction, said Supreme Court spokesman Jim Koval.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Peter Cooney