Commentary Magazine


Voter ID: When Judges Play Politics

Liberals celebrated yesterday when the same Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge who upheld the state’s voter ID law in August reversed himself and enjoined its enforcement on Election Day. There’s no denying that this is a defeat for the legislature that passed the bill as well as the overwhelming majority of Americans who back ID laws as a commonsense measure to deter voter fraud. But frustrating as it is, it is but a temporary setback. Both Judge Robert Simpson and the state Supreme Court have indicated that the law is constitutional. Yet Simpson, like many another judge when asked to affirm legal principles that are under attack by influential liberal forces, wavered when put to the test.

When Pennsylvanians go to the polls next month, they will be still asked to identify themselves with a photo card. But, as was the case in April when the rules were rolled out during the state’s primary, no one will be denied a ballot, even if they have no such documentation. The left-wingers who sued to strike down the law claimed voters would be unfairly disenfranchised. Simpson did not fully accept their assertions, but rather than face the storm that fully upholding the law would bring down on his head, he said there was not enough time before the election to ensure “liberal access.” While this means it will still be possible this year for political machines to turn out fictitious voters without fear of being caught — a time-honored political tradition in Philadelphia — in the future such shenanigans will be more difficult.

At the heart of this case are a couple of fallacies. The plaintiffs and their myriad supporters in the mainstream liberal press continue to promote the idea that hordes of legal voters are going to be stopped from casting their ballots. But Simpson’s concerns about the fact that the state hadn’t already issued enough new free state IDs that can be used in place of a drivers’ license tells us something that many political analysts already knew. There has been no surge of voters demanding IDs, because the vast majority of Pennsylvanians already have them since they are necessary for virtually every possible transaction a citizen can make, as well as travel. But it is equally true that many of those few who don’t are the least likely to care about voting. Though the state embarked on a massive campaign of voter information via ads and mailings, the number of ID cards issued is far below the numbers the law’s opponents claimed needed one. That makes it likely that it is their estimates that are widely inflated.

Despite the talk of the state placing obstacles in the path of those who seek IDs, the evidence actually shows that in most cases anyone who really wants an ID can get one with a minimum of effort. That was proved, to the embarrassment of the law’s opponents, when the lady whose name still sits atop the decision as the lead plaintiff got her state photo ID. Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year-old woman who had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights, was the ideal symbol of the effort to brand voter ID as a new version of Jim Crow. But all she had to do get an ID was to was to stroll into a DMV branch office and ask for one.

At bottom, the attempt to strike down the law isn’t a defense of genuine voting rights. After all, what could be more reasonable than requiring a person who presents themselves at the polls to show they are who they say they are. The law’s opponents are stuck in a logical dead-end in which they are effectively asserting that no questions should ever be asked of a potential voter, even if they are not registered, registered in another district or state or even not a citizen–they should just be allowed to vote. They claim there is no such thing as voter fraud in the U.S., a proposition that requires us to forget everything we know about American political history and human nature, but seem to have as their only purpose the enabling of such fraud.

But it would have taken a judge with more intestinal fortitude than Robert Simpson to point this out. Like U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who conjured up an absurd rationale for affirming the constitutionality of ObamaCare this past June so as to dodge the charge that the court was being political, Simpson also sought an expedient compromise in which he could affirm a legal principle without actually defending it.

This sorry chapter proves again that courage is the most important of all the virtues, since in its absence it is impossible to uphold the others. When judges play politics in this manner, they may think they are evading criticism but what they are really doing is bringing the legal system into disrepute.

In the future, Pennsylvania will have a voter ID law, since it will not be possible in 2014 or 2016 for even the most cowardly of judges to claim that the state needs more time to implement a law that is clearly constitutional. The same will probably be true of other states where liberals have sought to stop the laws through the courts. But in the meantime, it will be business as usual for those who seek to cheat and those determined to enable such practices.

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