In a strongly worded decision, a state judge Friday struck down Pennsylvania’s 2012 law requiring voters to produce a state-approved photo ID at the polls, setting up a potential Supreme Court confrontation that could have implications for other such laws across the country.
Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley ruled that the law hampered the ability of hundreds of thousands of qualified Pennsylvanians to cast their ballots, falling most heavily on elderly, disabled and low-income residents, and that the state’s reasons for enacting the law — that it was needed to combat voter fraud — was unsupported by the facts.
“Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election,” the judge wrote in his 103-page decision. “The Voter ID law does not further this goal.”
In addition, McGinley ruled, the state’s $5 million education campaign to explain the law had been full of misinformation that has never been corrected. He also said the free IDs that were supposed to be made available to those without a driver’s license or other approved photo identification were difficult and sometimes impossible to obtain.
Opponents of voter IDs called the ruling a “devastating indictment” of the Pennsylvania law.
The case is expected to go to the state Supreme Court.
Gov. Tom Corbett declined to comment, saying he had not reviewed the ruling. His lawyer, James Schultz, said they could seek a review by the full Commonwealth Court or appeal directly to the state Supreme Court.
Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat who helped represent Corbett and other state defendants, said she was waiting for a signal from the governor’s office on a possible appeal.
As in other states that have passed similar voter ID laws in recent years, Pennsylvania’s law was spearheaded by Republican legislators and signed by a Republican governor, in Pennsylvania’s case without any Democratic legislative support. McGinley is a Democrat.
Supporters of the law have said it is needed to make sure the person who casts the ballot is the person who is registered to vote.
Opponents contend that such fraud is rare — in Pennsylvania’s case, the state could not point to a single such incident — and that the laws are actually intended to suppress Democratic turnout, since those who do not possess a state-approved photo ID are more likely to be in groups that tend to vote Democratic.
“The type of problem that is addressed by voter ID laws is virtually nonexistent, which does raise the question of why they are passing these laws,” Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said after Friday’s ruling. “And the answer is that it is a voter suppression tool.”
Proponents of voter ID laws, which are being challenged in courts across the country, had pointed to a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld Indiana’s voter ID law, many of whose provisions are similar to Pennsylvania’s. That case, though, had been fought in federal courts. Pennsylvania’s case was in state court.
Wendy R. Weiser, director of the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the two cases also differed in the facts that were considered. The Indiana case involved a law that had not yet begun to be implemented, while the Pennsylvania case was able to point to the actual impact of the law’s initial rollout, particularly the ability of voters to get the free, state-issued photo IDs before they can vote.
“The court really looked at the actual impact of the law,” Weiser said. “Some of the past decisions have come without doing a real, close look at the impact. The issue is how they affect people in practice, not in theory. And in practice, it turns out that a significant number of people can’t get the photo ID they need.”