Pennsylvania's voter ID law isn't dead yet

And neither are similar laws in other states

Voter ID
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File))

A Pennsylvania judge on Friday struck down the state's controversial voter ID law, saying that it placed an unreasonable burden on voters.

"Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal," Judge Bernard L. McGinley wrote in his opinion. "Based on the foregoing, this Court declares the voter ID Law photo ID provisions and related implementation invalid."

Pennsylvania's voter ID law, signed in 2012 by Gov. Tom Corbett (R), is one of the toughest in the nation. Or rather, it would have been, had it not been suspended shortly after it went into effect, and thus prevented from taking hold before the 2012 election.

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The fact that it was nixed Friday was a win for critics who say voter ID laws are designed to suppress voter turnout. However, the ruling was by no means a sign that the law itself, or voter ID laws in general, are going away any time soon.

The ruling did not say that voter ID laws are discriminatory and invalid on their face. Rather, Judge McGinley ruled that some provisions of the law, as well as the way the law was implemented, had that unintentional effect. He wrote that the court was "presented with and finds no evidence of such purposeful discrimination."

This despite the fact that Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R) once boasted that the voter ID law "is gonna allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."

That's a significant distinction, one that "undercuts one of the main motivation arguments of opponents," wrote UC Irvine election law expert Rick Hasen. Critics of voter ID laws contend that such provisions are deliberate attempts to hinder whole groups of people, typically poor and minority citizens, from voting.

Moreover, Hasen noted that it was unclear if the state's Supreme Court — which will most likely hear the case on appeal — would even affirm the decision.

Readers may remember that when this case came up on a preliminary injunction before a different judge, the case went to the state Supreme Court which stayed implementation out of fear that the law would not be implemented in time for the 2012 elections. But ALL the justices on the Court then expressed the opinion that an efficient, fairly applied voter identification law would be constitutional under the PA state constitution. So the real question that is likely to be before the PA Supreme Court is whether this law is so hopelessly drafted and implemented that it amounts to a denial to the right to vote under the PA constitution (or a statutory or administrative violation), which would give the state supreme court a way to reject this voter ID law but not all voter ID laws. That result certainly seems possible on this record. [Election Law Blog]

Meanwhile, at the federal level, a bill introduced Thursday that would shore up the Voting Rights Act would also, to a degree, affirm the validity of voter ID laws. Though it would allow the Justice Department to block voter ID laws from going into effect in certain states, it would not count such legal actions as a violation of the VRA — which would trigger more federal oversight — unless a judge first sides with the federal government.

Pennsylvania's voter ID law will almost certainly go on to the state's high court. But even if it's struck down there, lawmakers could simply draft a revised version, taking into consideration the legal problems that downed this one.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.