Democratic Rep. Mark Critz's chances of hanging onto his seat representing Southwestern Pennsylvania could hinge on a lawsuit filed by a 93-year-old great grandmother over the state's new voter identification law.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is hearing Viviette Applewhite's appeal today so it can decide whether the recently enacted statute is so burdensome on some citizens that it violates Pennsylvania's constitution.
Like other lawsuits across the country, it pits Republicans concerned about voter fraud against Democrats worried about voter suppression. The outcome could affect turnout on Election Day and spawn legal challenges afterward.
Legal tussles over voter ID laws, purges of voters deemed ineligible, registration tactics and early voting periods in states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Texas and South Carolina are setting the stage for a potential post-election legal showdown in November.
At least one Senate race and five House races that Roll Call currently rates as a Tossup are in states with ongoing voting lawsuits.
"If anybody thinks that there won't be contests that are close enough that who does and who doesn't have the identification required will have an impact are deluding themselves," said Lawrence Norden at New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.
"It's rare to have a presidential election come down to 1,000 ballots, but it's not very rare to have a Congressional contest or state legislative race be decided by an extremely small margin," he said.
The Brennan Center is involved in several cases challenging what it characterizes as restrictive voting laws.
There are two schools of thought on voter identification measures, which, like most voting issues, tend to break down along party lines. Republicans are concerned about eliminating fraud and preserving integrity by making sure only valid registered voters cast ballots. Democrats worry that overly strict policing could suppress turnout and want to improve access.
"If I had to boil it down to its essentials, it's access versus integrity, that's what these cases are about," said Dan Tokaji, a law professor at the Ohio State University.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) signed a voter ID law in March 2012 that was designed to prevent fraud. It requires voters to show a photo ID issued by the federal government, the commonwealth, a municipal employer, an institute of higher education or a care facility.
Pennsylvania estimates at least 80,000 voters would have to get a new form of identification before Election Day.
Applewhite sued, arguing that as an elderly citizen who had never had a driver's license, the new law would be a burden on her and several other co-plaintiffs who had trouble obtaining their birth certificates and other required documentation. The League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, the NAACP and the Homeless Advocacy Project signed on to represent the interests of similarly situated individuals.
A court denied the group's request for a preliminary injunction in August, and the outcome of the case will now be decided by the commonwealth's highest court. There are currently three Democrats and three Republicans who will hear the voter ID case. If there's a 3-3 decision, the law would stand.