HARRISBURG, Pa. -- The first legal test for Pennsylvania's tough new voter identification law began Wednesday, with state lawyers calling the measure a completely rational step, while opponents contended it was a partisan scheme that violates the constitution and will deprive countless people of their right to vote.
Lawyers delivered their opening statements to Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who must decide whether to block the law from taking effect in this year's election as part of a wider challenge to its constitutionality.
The law is the subject of a furious debate over voting rights as Pennsylvania is poised to play a key role in deciding the Nov. 6 presidential election. Republicans say if GOP candidate Mitt Romney wins Pennsylvania, then President Barack Obama, a Democrat, will lose the national election.
The original justification in Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled Legislature for the new law - to prevent election fraud - will essentially play little role in the legal case, since lawyers for the state have decided not to make that argument. Instead, they are trying to show that lawmakers properly exercised their latitude to make voting-related laws when it chose to require widely available forms of photo identification.
David Gersh, a plaintiffs' lawyer, told Simpson that the law could make it more difficult for more than a million people to exercise their right to vote and that the justification for the law - to prevent election fraud - is a pretext without any proof to back it up. The real purpose is for partisan advantage, Gersh said.
"That is not under any circumstances a compelling state interest," Gersh told Simpson.
The trial kicked off as the Philadelphia City Paper reported that at least 1,636,168 registered voters, about 20 percent of Pennsylvania voters, don't currently possess valid PennDOT-issued ID, a primary form of identification. According to the City Paper's figures, 437,237 of these people reside in the urban center of Philadelphia. This tally is far higher than earlier numbers because it includes those whose IDs will expire by the November election, rendering them unacceptable for use under the state's voter ID law.
State officials have maintained that these studies often inflate numbers and aren't cause for concern because many of the people included have access to other valid forms of identification. But the plaintiffs in the trial that began on Wednesday are just some of the state's residents who don't.
The first three plaintiffs to testify at the trial Wednesday were all older women, minorities and Philadelphia residents who said they vote regularly. But they have no valid identification under the new law, and they apparently don't have the required documents - a birth certificate, a Social Security card and two proofs of residency - necessary to get a valid state photo ID.
Wilola Lee, 60, is unable to get a birth certificate from her birth state, Georgia, which apparently has no record. Viviette Applewhite, 93, who recalled marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1960, testified that she is unable to get a birth certificate and Social Security card with the same last name after being adopted early in life. And Ana Gonzalez, 63, who also was adopted early in life and came to the United States in 1957, has no Social Security card and doesn't seem to have the identification necessary to get a birth certificate from Puerto Rico.
Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley contended that the state is taking pains to create new ways of getting identification and that it has removed a great number of barriers to people who want to vote. On Election Day, anyone who wants to vote will have an ID card that allows them to do so, he insisted.
"In this day and age, nothing could be more rational than requiring a photo ID when voters come to the polls," Cawley said.
Simpson, a Republican, said he hoped to rule during the week of Aug. 13. His decision will likely be appealed to the state Supreme Court, which is split between three Republicans and three Democrats.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice is looking at whether Pennsylvania's law complies with federal laws.
The measure passed the Legislature earlier this year without a single Democratic "yes" vote. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett signed it in March.
Democrats' accusations that the law is an election-year scheme to steal the White House were fanned in June when the state's House Republican floor leader told a state party meeting that the law would allow Romney to win Pennsylvania in the fall.
The law says voters must show an eligible photo ID card for their votes to be counted. It is a significant departure from current law, which asks only people voting in a ward for the first time to show identification, including such non-photo forms as a utility bill or bank statement.