By Mark Shade
HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - A legal challenge to Pennsylvania's controversial voter identification law kicked off on Wednesday in court, where the judge hearing the case said it will likely go to higher courts before it is decided.
Civil and voting rights groups, which have brought the challenge, say the law is needless and discriminates against minority voters.
Supporters, which include the Republican-dominated legislature and Republican Governor Tom Corbett, say it is necessary to prevent fraud and to keep non-citizens from voting.
Pennsylvania is one of 11 states to pass voter identification laws since 2010. The laws have become a controversial issue ahead of the November 6 elections.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson said he expects the trial to last until the end of next week and that he will not make a decision until August 13 at the earliest.
"This is a high-profile case. There's a lot of anxiety here," he said. "There will be a lot of people very unhappy with my decision no matter what I do."
But, he said, "take heart," because the case will likely go to higher courts before it is over.
In addition to the judicial challenge, the state's law is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, which said this week it will analyze Pennsylvania data to determine if voters who lack proper ID under the new law are disproportionately black or Hispanic.
In his opening argument, David Gersh, the attorney representing those behind the challenge, said the fraud the ID law aims to address does not exist.
"The integrity of the electoral process is not enhanced by turning people away from the polls," Gersh said.
He said more than 1 million registered voters will not be eligible to vote under Pennsylvania's law, known as Act 18.
"The law creates an irrational distinction between voters," Gersh said.
The case has been filed under the name of Vivian Applewhite, 92, of Philadelphia. She attended Wednesday's court session in a wheelchair, dressed in a gray sweater and a white lace hat.
Her lawyers say Applewhite is a regular voter but does not have a valid photo ID and cannot get her birth certificate to obtain one.
In defense of the law, Patrick Cawley, senior deputy state attorney general, said: "Voter fraud will go undetected unless a tool, voter ID, is there to detect it."
"Nothing could be more rational than requiring a voter ID when going to the polls," Cawley said.
INTERPRETATION OF STATE'S CONSTITUTION
Pennsylvania will argue that even those without ID can easily get one before November. Civil rights groups will present residents who say they cannot get one in time for various reasons, such as homelessness or a lack of underlying documents.
The case turns on the interpretation of Pennsylvania's constitution, which says all elections shall be free and equal. If a law prevents even one person from voting, it would violate the state's constitution.
Pennsylvania officials estimate 85,000 voters will need a special ID issued free by the state.
Opponents say voter ID laws more broadly violate the nation's Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 during the peak of the civil rights movement, which prohibits rules that make it more difficult for minorities to vote.
The laws target both minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic, and elderly voters, who are less likely to have valid ID, they say. The argument that such laws are aimed at Democratic voters has created a contentious issue in this presidential election year.
"The assumption is voter ID would affect more poor people and minorities, who are disproportionately Democratic," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
"If the election gets close like it was in 2004, this will matter," he said. In 2004, losing Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry won Pennsylvania by about 100,000 votes. President Barack Obama won the state in 2008 by some 600,000 votes.
Republican legislators in Pennsylvania have said the law was not politically motivated and backed away from a statement made by Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai in June.
Addressing a group of fellow Republicans, Turzai said: "Voter ID — which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done," referring to Obama's Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
(Additional reporting by Drew Singer in Washington; editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Greg McCune and Mohammad Zargham)