A Pennsylvania judge has permanently enjoined the commonwealth from
rolling out its controversial Voter ID law, an announcement that was ecstatically received by civil libertarians who challenged the measure as an infringement on constitutional rights.
In a lengthy, 103-page opinion, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley on Friday struck down the law as “invalid and unconstitutional on its face.”
The provision of the law, also known as Act 18, that forces voters to show photo identification at the polls “does not comport with liberal access and unreasonably burdens the right to vote,” McGinley wrote.
Commonwealth Court is one of two lower-tier appellate courts. It generally handles election issues.
McGinley’s ruling only strikes down the photo ID provision in Act 18; it lets stand other portions of the law, such as a section dealing with absentee voting.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers had only challenged the photo identification requirement of the law.
The court ruling was immediately praised by attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who had filed suit on behalf of those who they said would be disproportionately affected by the law if it was implemented.
“The only fraud uncovered in this case is the ID law itself, which is exposed as a voter suppression tool adopted to game elections,” ACLU of Pa. Legal Director Witold Walczak said in a statement.
Michael A. Rubin, an attorney with the firm Arnold & Porter who also worked on the case, called Friday “a good day to be a Pennsylvania voter.
“In striking down this law, the court recognized that constitutional rights, especially the most fundamental right to vote, protect us from the government and cannot be taken away on the whim of that government.”
According to the ACLU, Pennsylvania’s Voter ID law, which was passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor in the spring of 2012, was considered to be one of the strictest of its kind in the country.
The statute would have only recognized certain types of photo identification and would have required those lacking an ID card to travel to one of only 71 state Department of Transportation facilities to obtain an approved form of identification.
Attorneys representing the allegedly disenfranchised voters argued that the travel requirements would have been burdensome for those living in rural areas, where the closest DOT location could be many miles away from their homes.
The law especially burdened the elderly, the ACLU alleged, and others with limited mobility and disabilities.
It also would have overly burdened the homeless and others with limited resources.
Fellow Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson had previously issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the government from implementing the law while the merits of the measure were being challenged.
Simpson subsequently extended the injunction to include the November 2012 presidential election and the April 2013 primary election.
McGinley, the judge who penned the ruling, decided to keep the preliminary injunction in place for this past November’s municipal elections.
In his opinion, McGinley wrote that voting laws are “designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.”
The judge wrote that a “substantial threat still exists to the franchise of hundreds of thousands of registered electors, and uncounted qualified electors, despite [the government’s] unfettered ability to continue, strengthen, and clarify voter education efforts and to provide compliant ID to the hundreds of thousands of electors who lack it.”
In this case, McGinley determined, the plaintiffs established a “clear right to relief from enforcement of the photo ID provisions in the Voter ID Law.
“The right to vote, fundamental in Pennsylvania, is irreplaceable, necessitating its protection before any deprivation occurs,” McGinley wrote. “Deprivation of the franchise is neither compensable nor reparable by after-the-fact legal remedies, necessitating injunctive and declaratory relief.”
McGinley stated that enjoining the photo identification provision of the voter law “preserves the integrity of our elections.
“By contrast,” he wrote, “denying the requested relief would only add to the chaos in implementation and inaccurate messaging that has ensued since the statute’s enactment and [the government’s] inconsistent implementation.”
The judge noted that in order for the law to be constitutional, it must contain a mechanism for ensuring “liberal access” to photo identification cards so that the requirement “does not disenfranchise valid voters.”
McGinley is a Democrat; no Democratic lawmaker reportedly voted for the law at the time it was passed and subsequently signed by Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican.
Democrats had argued that the law was a backdoor attempt at suppressing the voter rights of those who tend to vote Democratic, such as minorities and the poor.
Republicans who backed the measure said it was needed to tamp down on voter fraud and preserve the integrity of elections.
Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which was also involved in the litigation, said in a statement that as voter turnout continues to hit record lows, “we need to make sure we do everything we can to increase participation, not deter it.
“All the evidence in the case pointed to hundreds of thousands of registered Pennsylvania voters who do not have IDs,” she stated. “The state is simply unable to get ID into the hands of all the people who needed it.”
In a statement, Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, another group involved with the lawsuit, called McGinley’s ruling, “a victory for all those who believe that in a democracy, elections should be free, fair and accessible to all people.
“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,” Hair stated. “By protecting voting as a fundamental right, today’s decision affirms that all Pennsylvania voters should have the opportunity to participate equally in the democratic process.”
There was no immediate word on whether the defendants, who included the office of Gov. Corbett, would appeal to the state's Supreme Court, although it is likely that an appeal to the high court would follow McGinely's ruling.