Two days ago, State Representative Mike Turzai, one of the top Republicans in Pennsylvania, made a big mistake: he told the truth about Pennsylvania’s new voter identification law.
At a state Republican Party meeting in Harrisburg Saturday, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Allegheny County listed legislative victories since Republicans regained control of both chambers and the governor’s office. Among them, he said: requiring voters, starting in November, to show an acceptable form of identification at the polls.
Turzai then framed the effort in the context of November’s presidential election. “Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania – done,” Turzai told the crowd, which promptly broke into applause.
We already knew that was the real reason behind the Voter ID law, of course, because we already knew that in-person voter fraud virtually never happens in Pennsylvania (or anywhere else), and because we knew that the Voter ID law’s provisions were targeted at denying senior citizens, college students, and the impoverished their right to vote.
But we didn’t know that one of the bill’s primary supporters would be so foolish as to admit it in public.
On one level, the admission of the malicious and undemocratic intent behind the new law — note the “broke into applause” part in the story above — is just an embarrassment, a “gaffe” that will subject Representative Turzai to criticisms in the press and on the Internet but probably won’t seriously hinder his chances at reelection in Pennsylvania’s heavily gerrymandered districts.
On another level, though, the admission may have very real consequences. Turzai’s boast and the ovation he received from the state’s Republican elite may spell the end of the Voter ID law. As I discussed before, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, given their penchant for civil liberties, has already filed suit against the Governor, asking the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court to enjoin enforcement of the Voter ID act in the upcoming elections. I frankly think the ACLU and co-counsel have a slam dunk case on the merits, and they could not have asked for better plaintiffs in the case, but let us assume, for the moment, that there were judges who were not as convinced as I am of the Voter ID law’s unconstitutionality.
As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held, “no right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.” In re Nomination Papers of Ralph Nader, 580 Pa. 22, 44, 858 A.2d 1167, 1180 (Pa. 2004). In assessing this precious right, the Commonwealth Court will look at whether the legislature in passing the Act “intentionally discriminated against an identifiable political group,” which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized in Erfer v. Commonwealth could include discriminating against citizens inclined to vote for a particular political party. Erfer v. Commonwealth, 794 A. 2d 325, 332-333 (Pa. 2002).
Representative Turzai just answered that question, confirming that, indeed, he and the rest of the legislators who voted for the act “intentionally discriminated against an identifiable political group.” In doing so, he effectively branded any judge who votes to uphold the law as an unprincipled partisan of the worst sort, someone who interprets “law” in whatever way best benefits their political party. There’s no room to argue otherwise; how does a court deny the Voter ID law “intentionally discriminated against an identifiable political group” when the key legislators who passed the law applaud when reminded that that “law” is nothing but a disenfranchisement tactic aimed at the voters for one party?
I write a lot about court opinions that I vigorously disagree with, and my disdain for the current United States Supreme Court is obvious, but I will say this much: courts care about public opinion, and few people see themselves as the bad guys. Few judges will knowingly make the wrong decision in a case. In less than a minute of gloating prematurely, Representative Turzai and his clapping audience of Republican bigwigs made abundantly clear to the public and the courts who is right and who is wrong about the Voter ID law.