Pennsylvania Voter ID Ruled ‘Unnecessarily’ Burdensome, Unconstitutional

Judge blocks voter ID law, but not on grounds that it is racially discriminatory, oddly.

By Brentin Mock Jan 17, 2014

Pennsylvania Judge Bernard McGinley ruled today that the voter ID law passed in 2012 was a violation of the state’s constitutional protections of the right to vote. Judge McGinley found that the burdens imposed on voters who lacked the documents to obtain a photo ID if they didn’t have one, or lacked access to state offices that supplied IDs were too heavy and could lead to massive disenfranchisement. From the judge’s ruling:

"The burdens the Voter ID Law entails are unnecessary and not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. And the record is rife with testimony from numerous Pennsylvania voters whose right to vote will be — and indeed already has been — denied or substantially and unnecessarily burdened by the Voter ID law."

The state court agreed that hundreds of thousands of voters would suffer disenfranchisement because of a number of restrictions and obstacles imposed by the state on those seeking photo ID to vote. Lawyers from ACLU, Advancement Project and other legal organizations presented dozens of witnesses who testified to how difficult it was for them to get ID, many of them denied.

The judge also found the state’s voter education campaign — mandated by another court for the state to produce billboards, brochures and other ads about the voter ID law to make sure all were aware of it — to be confusing and ineffective. 

This case has ping-ponged from court to court on appeals, starting with a ruling in August of 2012 denying a temporary halt on the law that civil rights attorneys requested so that it would not be in effect for the November presidential elections. The state’s supreme court later told the judge to revisit that decision, though, and to grant the halt if he couldn’t guarantee that no one would be disenfranchised. Unable to make that assurance, the judge blocked the law for the November elections, but with the confusing requirement that poll workers could ask voters for photo ID, though voters didn’t have to show it. And, in fact, voters were confused on Election Day. 

Today’s ruling is based on last year’s trial asking for a permanent block of the law, on the grounds that it was both too restrictive and violated constitutional equal protection rights for people of color. Curiously, Judge McGinley found that the voter ID law did not discriminate based on race, despite evidence provided that the law would unfairly disadvantage thousands of voters of color and Puerto Ricans in particular. The state government may appeal this decision back to the state supreme court, but there’s one wrinkle: Pennsylvania has a new attorney general, Kathleen Kane, a Democrat who is less sympathetic to the state’s hopes to preserve the law than her conservative predecessor Linda Kelly, who was attorney general when this case first went to court. 

On a press call earlier today, Ben Geffen of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia said he hoped that instead of spending more taxpayer dollars on an appeal, the state would put that money toward better voter education and registration efforts. 

"The only fraud uncovered in this case is the ID law itself, which is exposed as a voter suppression tool adopted to game elections," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.