Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Found Unconstitutional

By: - January 17, 2014 12:00 am

A Pennsylvania state judge struck down the state’s voter ID law Friday, bringing an end to an 18-month legal battle that prevented the law from ever being enforced during an election.

Commonwealth Judge Bernard McGinley found requiring a voter to show photo identification before casting a ballot unconstitutional because the state failed to offer a “legal, non-burdensome” option for all prospective voters.  

For those lacking a qualifying ID, McGinley ruled that the law “has the effect of disenfranchising them through no fault of their own.  Inescapably, the Voter ID Law infringes upon qualified electors’ right to vote.” 

“Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal,” the judge continued in his opinion. “Further, a substantial threat still exists to the franchise of hundreds of thousands of registered electors, and uncounted qualified electors, despite (the state’s) unfettered ability to continue, strengthen, and clarify education efforts and to provide compliant ID to the hundreds of thousands of electors who lack it.”

The ruling can be appealed by the state, which has fought to defend the law since it was enacted before the 2012 election. The administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, a strong backer of the ID requirement, had no immediate comment Friday, but said it would weigh in later. 

The law was never fully enforced after it was enacted, as a series of legal challenges and temporary rulings against the state blocked it from taking effect. A two-week trial last summer featured hours of testimony from those who said the law was a burden on them and argued it would block their ability to vote, testimony that Judge McGinley referenced directly in his ruling. 

Those who fought the law praised the decision.  

“This ruling is a victory for all those who believe that in a democracy, elections should be free, fair and accessible to all people,” Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, an advocacy group, said in a statement. “Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania citizens who lack one of the limited forms of acceptable photo ID can now cast their ballots without burdensome obstacles.” 

The effect of the ruling will be limited outside the state’s borders, however, where similar battles have raged over voter ID laws. The law was found to violate the state’s constitution, and the ruling won’t directly affect challenges over similar measures in federal courts. 

Still, it was a victory for those who have fought against such limits, and a signal that if there’s a strong case to be made, opponents can persuade judges. All during the legal challenge, Pennsylvania judges voiced skepticism that the law violated the right to vote on its face, but were open to arguments about the state’s inability to ensure those without ID could vote.  

“I reject the underlying assertion that the offending activity is the request to produce photo ID,” Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson wrote in ordering a temporary block on the law before the 2012 election. 

Simpson, and now McGinley, were instead persuaded by the case opponents made in showing the negative effect on voters, stopping short of striking it down as unconstitutional on its face. 

“Like a house of cards, everything rises and falls upon the legitimacy of (the alternative ID option for those without one),” McGinley wrote Friday. “The Voter ID Law does not contain, on its face, any valid non-burdensome means of providing compliant photo ID to qualified electors. Accordingly, the Voter ID Law is facially unconstitutional.”

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