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Ruling issued in PA voter ID law by judge who deems undue burden on voters

State unable to prove in court that photo ID needed to cast ballots
State unable to prove in court that photo ID needed to cast ballots
Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

On Friday, January 17th, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley issued the long-awaited ruling in Pennsylvania's voter ID law determined that that Act 18, more commonly known as the PA Voter ID law is unconstitutional and places an undue burden on the petitioners fundamental right to vote. In his 103-page opinion, Judge McGinley described the reasons why he ruled in favor of the petitioners and explained why he did not side with the State. Specifically, McGinley believed the State did not provide evidence that voter fraud exists in Pennsylvania nor did he believe that the respondents showed that integrity in elections was a compelling state interest for the Voter ID law. McGinley also determined that the Department of State did not present a reasonable argument for excluding other forms of photo identification the State of Pennsylvania recognizes for other purposes. According to McGinley, "the effect of the Voter ID law is de facto disenfranchisement of all qualified electors who lack a compliant photo ID enumerated in the statute."

What this ruling means is that the PA Voter ID law will not go into effect. Voters will not be required to show photo identification when they go to vote for the next election. If the Commonwealth decides to appeal McGinley's ruling, the next court challenge would occur in Superior Court. The next step after that is to appeal to the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court. Providing the case would be accepted, the last and final stand under the judicial branch for any case is the United States Supreme Court. Considering voter ID laws across the nation have been challenged at the state levels, it is not unreasonable to expect that this case could eventually end up being appealed to the high court. Right now, the ball sits in the lap of the Commonwealth to determine the next course of action. Following this decision, Governor Corbett will most likely be meeting with key staff to plot their next move. Logically, they can pick from one of two choices: appeal to Superior Court or leave the decision as it stands. According to a report in Politico, Rob Gleason, who is the PA GOP Chairman, said he is in support of another court challenge. James Schultz, general counsel for the executive, said that Governor Corbett's office will evaluate the court opinion before making a decision.

As it was reported in The Washington Post, civil rights supporters and other groups against voting laws celebrated a victorious win in court. The law firm of Arnold and Porter along with the ACLU, NAACP and the Homeless Advocacy Project were glad to see the Commonwealth Court provided "declaratory and permanent injunctive relief" from the implementation of the Voter ID law. McGinley did not agree with the petitioners' argument that the law did not provide them with equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Rather, the judge concluded that while certain vulnerable populations such as minorities, non-English speakers, the young and the elderly, that they did not provide evidence of proof for their assertion. In other words, vulnerable populations may have been disenfranchised by the Voter ID law, but the way the law is written could place an undue burden on any Pennsylvania voter.

Should the Commonwealth decide to continue the battle in Superior Court, they will want to evaluate the reasoning McGinley used to write his opinion including his criticisms of the lack of reliability of the SURE database that the Department of State and PennDOT used to determine voter eligibility. In addition, McGinley was highly critical of PennDOT's limited county licensing centers was an obstacle too large for many people in rural counties to overcome. While there are 9,300 polling places throughout the State of Pennsylvania where voters can cast their ballots on election day, there are limited PennDOT photo centers especially in some rural counties where there are no centers exist. For example, nine rural counties have no driver's license centers that provide photo IDs for voting purposes only. In another 13 rural counties, the photo centers are only open one day a week, and in another nine counties their centers are only open for two days a week.

Compared to an urban county such as Philadelphia where there are five photo licensing centers along with public transportation to travel to the location, the reduction in services placed an undue burden on the voter who lives in an area without the same ease of access. In fact, the nine counties that do not have a PennDOT licensing center do have anywhere from nine to 33 polling places. Although voters in those counties may be able to walk or drive locally to cast their ballot, they do not have the same ease in obtaining photo identification from PennDOT. With the average driving distance being 14.11 miles to a photo licensing center, it would take the person without transportation all day to walk there and back. Considering it is a 20 mile commute for 1 out of 5 people and a 30 mile commute one-way for 1 out of 10 people, walking or riding one's bike may just not be feasible to the voter who lives in the sticks. Fortunately for those voters, the judge agreed that the travel for a photo ID needed to vote would cause them to be disenfranchised and potentially limit their right to vote.