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Pennsylvania judge strikes down state’s voter ID law

Pennsylvanian Cheryl Ann Moore obtains a photo ID. (Lucian Perkins/For the Washington Post)

A state judge in Pennsylvania struck down the state's new voter ID law Friday.

Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley ruled that the law, which has already been delayed by the courts and was not implemented in the 2012 election, is unconstitutional. The ruling sets up a key showdown in the state Supreme Court over the controversial law.

"Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal," McGinley wrote in his decision, adding: "Based on the foregoing, this Court declares the Voter ID Law photo ID provisions and related implementation invalid…"

The law was given a brief trial period this summer, during which opponents say it caused myriad problems and voters were unable to cast ballots because of it.

The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project and the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP represented several plaintiffs--including the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, the NAACP, the Pennsylvania State Conference and the Homeless Advocacy Project--in challenging the law.

“Today Judge McGinley delivered a devastating indictment of the PA voter ID law," Arnold & Porter attorney Michael A. Rubin told reporters in a conference call, adding that one of the judge's most significant findings was that the state-issued voter identification card "provided no guarantee to qualified voters that they would be allowed to vote."

James D. Schultz, general counsel to Gov. Tom Corbett (R-Penn.) said in a statement the state was still weighing the decision on whether to appeal. "We continue to evaluate the opinion and will shortly determine whether post-trial motions are appropriate,” Schultz said.

McGinley ruled that several aspects of the voter ID law's implementation failed to ensure sufficient ballot access for state residents. Those included a lack of mobile units, lengthy wait times and the fact that many driver's license offices are open only a couple of days a week.

He concluded, however, that the plaintiffs had not specifically proved that the law was intentionally discriminatory, as defined under the Pennsylvania state constitution. "We hadn’t quite shown that they discriminated intentionally against members of a protected class," the Advancement Project's Marian Schneider told reporters in Friday's conference call.

SUNY Buffalo Law School professor James A. Gardner wrote in an e-mail that while McGinley's opinion was thoughtful and weighed the constitutional questions involved in the case carefully, it could set up a clash with the state's highest court.

"The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has been one of the least active nationally in giving independent effect to the individual rights provisions in the state constitution, and when it has done so, it tends to interpret them 'in lockstep' with the U.S. Supreme Court, meaning it tends to give them the same meaning, and to require the same results, as cognate provisions of the U.S. Constitution," he wrote.

Many states have passed new voter ID laws since the 2010 election, when Republicans gained control of the governorships and state legislatures in nearly half the states.

Democrats have long contended that the GOP push for voter ID laws is aimed at disenfranchising minority voters, who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Republicans say they are aimed at combating election fraud.

In Pennsylvania, one GOP leader said before the 2012 election that the law would help Mitt Romney carry the state — a pretty clear allusion to its partisan impact. Romney did not win the state, but after the election, the state Republican Party chairman said confusion about the voter ID law probably helped the GOP narrow the gap.

The Justice Department has led the charge against the new laws in some states, including Texas. Texas's has been blocked by a federal judge, who said it would disproportionately hurt minority voters.

Legal battles are also being waged in states including North Carolina and Wisconsin.

Democrats have fought back against the new laws in state courts because federal courts have already upheld Indiana's voter ID law.

Robert Barnes contributed to this post. Updated at 2:10 a.m.

Pennsylvania Voter ID decision

Related links:

Pa.’s new voter ID law sends non-drivers on a bureaucratic journey

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