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Pennsylvania judge guts voter ID law, calling it burdensome

The photo ID provisions of the Pennsylvania voter ID law 'violate the fundamental right to vote,' the judge wrote, but he found no evidence it sought to intentionally disenfranchise Democratic voters.

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A man heads into the the Penndot Drivers License Center in Butler, Pa., Sept. 26, 2012, near a sign telling of the requirement for voters to show an acceptable photo ID to vote. A Pennsylvania judge on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, struck down a key portion of the state’s voter ID law.

Keith Srakocic/AP/File

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A Pennsylvania judge on Friday struck down a key portion of the state’s voter ID law and permanently enjoined officials from enforcing the election-day requirement that voters show ID before being allowed to cast a ballot.

Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley said the state’s voter ID Law was intended to provide free and liberal access to an ID for those who lacked the requisite identification.

Instead of free and easy access, the judge said, state officials created a burdensome and confusing regime that resulted in de facto disenfranchisement of qualified Pennsylvania voters.

“This Court holds that the photo ID provisions of the Voter ID Law violate the fundamental right to vote and unnecessarily burden the hundreds of thousands of electors who lack compliant photo ID,” Judge McGinley wrote in his 50-page opinion.

The judge said he found no evidence that the voter ID law was passed by Pennsylvania’s Republican-majority legislature with the intention of disenfranchising certain voters who might be more inclined to vote for Democratic candidates.

Critics of the law cited comments reportedly made by the House majority leader that the voter ID requirement would allow Mitt Romney to carry Pennsylvania over Barak Obama in the 2012 presidential race. (Mr. Obama won Pennsylvania on his way to reelection in November 2012.)

“There is little dispute that the burdens of the Voter ID Law imposes weigh most heavily on the most vulnerable members of society,” the judge said. But he said such a disproportionate impact was not enough to prove a violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

Challengers to the law must also present evidence of purposeful discrimination, the judge said. “The Court has been presented with and finds no evidence of such purposeful discrimination,” McGinley said.

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Critics of the law praised Judge McGinley’s decision as a safeguard to the democratic process.

“This ruling is a monumental victory for those who believe that in a democracy elections should be free, fair, and accessible to all people,” Penda Hair of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington and Los Angeles, 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,” she added.

 The Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia, and the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter filed suit challenging Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law.

They charged that it threatened to disenfranchise low-income and elderly voters who did not have the required ID and lacked the means to obtain it.

Various experts estimated that between 320,000 to 1.3 million Pennsylvania voters were without required photo IDs. The Voter ID Law mandated that the state would provide “liberal access” to anyone needing identification.

Judge McGinley said the state failed to provide “liberal access.”

“As a constitutional prerequisite, any voter ID law must contain a mechanism for ensuring liberal access to compliant photo IDs so that the requirement of photo ID does not disenfranchise valid voters,” the judge said.

But the resulting mechanism to provide free ID was too burdensome, the judge said. 

“In the majority of its applications, the Voter ID Law renders Pennsylvania’s fundamental right to vote so difficult to exercise as to cause de facto disenfranchisement,” he said.

Despite the large number of citizens lacking ID, officials had distributed only 17,000 IDs for voting, he said. The judge added that for many citizens – those lacking a driver’s license – obtaining an ID to vote would be a substantial ordeal.

Pennsylvania has 71 offices where such IDs are issued, five of them in Philadelphia. But there are no such offices in 9 counties, and the offices in 13 counties are only open two days a week, the judge said.

McGinley also noted that Pennsylvania officials had failed to show any evidence of a problem with voter fraud that would justify the new law.

He said that offering those without a photo ID a chance to cast a provisional ballot did not save the statute because provisional ballots are only available to prospective voters who are deemed to be “indigent.”

The judge said it was “difficult, if not impossible” to prove one’s indigent status.

“Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal,” Judge McGinley wrote. “Further, a substantial threat still exists to the franchise of hundreds of thousands of registered electors, and uncounted qualified electors.”

He said the threat was continuing more than a year after the initial litigation despite efforts by Pennsylvania officials to educate voters and provide compliant ID to those who lack it.

The judge said his injunction blocking the Voter ID Law would preserve the integrity of Pennsylvania elections. “By contrast, denying the requested relief would only add to the chaos in implementation and inaccurate messaging that has ensued since the statute’s enactment,” he said.

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