Judge spikes photo ID requirement for Pennsylvania voters
By Debra Erdley
Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, 9:27 a.m.

Pennsylvania's controversial 2012 voter ID law may be dead as a result of a judge's sweeping, 103-page opinion labeling the law “unconstitutional on its face.”

The March 2012 law that required voters to present official photo identification to cast a ballot was considered among the strictest in the nation, and state courts repeatedly delayed its implementation.

Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley, a Pittsburgh Democrat who presided over a 12-day trial last summer prompted by a challenge from a coalition of civil liberties groups, filed his opinion spiking it on Friday.

Gov. Tom Corbett's administration, which had defended the law as necessary to prevent voter fraud, was slow to respond to the ruling. Corbett did not reply to requests for comment.

“We continue to evaluate the opinion and will shortly determine whether post-trial motions are appropriate,” said Corbett's General Counsel James D. Schultz.

Although 10 other states require voters to present a photo ID, and an Indiana law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, McGinley said Pennsylvania's law failed to provide a safety net for hundreds of thousands of registered voters who lack such ID and might be deterred from voting because of the inconvenience of obtaining acceptable ID.

“Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the voter ID law does not further this goal,” McGinley wrote.

He lambasted the state's multimillion-dollar advertising campaign promoting the provisions of the voter ID law as misleading and confusing.

State Rep. Daryl D. Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, called McGinley's decision “an activist ruling by a partisan Democrat judge.”

The fact that the law may impose a burden on voters who need an ID “doesn't give you a reason to (disregard) the voice of the people” as expressed by the Legislature, Metcalfe said.

University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkhoff said McGinley's opinion will be difficult to challenge.

“Judge McGinley analyzes the legal, logical and practical flaws in this photo ID requirement and its shoddy implementation in great and exacting detail, making it clear that these are flaws that would — intentionally or not — keep hundreds of thousands of perfectly lawful voters from even entering the voting booth. His opinion is a virtual judicial stake through the heart of the photo ID requirement,” Burkhoff said.

A spokesman for the NAACP, whose Pennsylvania chapter joined in the challenge, hailed McGinley's decision.

“This Court recognizes that unnecessary barriers to the ballot box are counter to the principle this nation holds most dear — that all citizens should have free and unfettered access to the ballot box. The NAACP, Pennsylvania State Conference, ACLU and other plaintiffs have worked tirelessly for this moment, and we hope to repeat this victory across the nation,” said Jotaka Eaddy, NAACP voting rights director.

Ben Geffen of the Public Interest Law Firm of Philadelphia conceded the fight his firm joined may not be finished. The state Supreme Court could take up an appeal before the spring primary if Corbett opts to file one, he said.

“If the Commonwealth chooses to appeal, we'll be ready. But we hope they don't,” he said.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose office defended the law in court, was circumspect on Friday. Kane said she is awaiting word from “the client,” in this case, the governor's office.

“I respect Judge McGinley's very thoughtful decision in this matter. The Office of Attorney General will continue to defend the rights of all Pennsylvanians, and we will work with all related Commonwealth agencies to carry out this decision and ensure that all voters have access to free and fair elections,” Kane wrote in an email.

Democrats and civil liberties groups had long opposed the law, claiming it was an attempt to suppress voter turnout among groups likely to support Democrats. Republicans, who control the Pennsylvania General Assembly, said the law was necessary to root out voter fraud.

“Senate Democrats have said clearly and repeatedly that the voter ID law was an overreach that would result in the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters. It was a law that should have never been approved, and we are very happy that the court turned aside the measure today,” state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said on Friday.

Republican State Committee Chairman Rob Gleason said he was disappointed with McGinley's decision.

“The overwhelming majority of Pennsylvanians support a way to protect their right to vote and combat voter fraud,” Gleason said.

Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, noted that the state was unable to point to any specific instances of voter fraud during the trial.

“They could not point to a single instance. And to look at it that way, the only fraud that's being perpetrated in Pennsylvania is by the people who support this voter ID law,” Walczak said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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