PA judge strikes down voter ID law... for now

I suppose it’s somehow appropriate that the film Groundhog Day was set in Pennsylvania, because it’s certainly starting to feel that way when it comes to new voter ID laws. After being passed and then set aside and then brought back, a (Democrat) judge from the Commonwealth Court has struck down the law once again with less than two months until the 2014 primary.

In a strongly worded decision, a state judge on Friday struck down Pennsylvania’s 2012 law requiring voters to produce a state-approved photo ID at the polls, setting up a potential Supreme Court confrontation that could have implications for other such laws across the country.

The judge, Bernard L. McGinley of Commonwealth Court, ruled that the law hampered the ability of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians to cast their ballots, with the burden falling most heavily on elderly, disabled and low-income residents, and that the state’s reason for the law — that it was needed to combat voter fraud — was not supported by the facts.

Here’s the entire 103 page decision if you care to plow through the whole thing. I’m not investing that kind of time at the moment, but some other people have already done it. There’s a fairly good analysis by Rick Hasen at Election Law Blog which explains that the people celebrating this decision might be a bit premature.

Despite the victory, there are some things in here that will be troubling for voter id opponents (and heartening for their supporters). The judge said that Pa’s equal protection clause is read as equivalent to the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause, and the Court found there was no equal protection violation by the law. The judge specifically found, in footnote 33 (p. 48), that the law was NOT motivated by an attempt to disenfranchise minorities or Democratic voters—the judge said he found this notwithstanding the comments of House Majority Leader Mike Turzai. From my quick look at the statement of facts, I did not see more of the basis for the judge’s opinion on this point, but it undercuts one of the main motivation arguments of opponents.

Hasen goes on to point out that the next stop for this case is the PA Supreme Court which may not uphold Judge McGinley’s decision. Their original finding in setting aside the law was more a question of timing and fine tuning the legislation (which couldn’t be done in time for the 2012 election) while not declaring the basic premise of the law to be unconstitutional. By contrast, the judge seemed to continue to focus a major part of his objections on the red herring of we don’t have records of much voter fraud, so you can’t pass a law to prevent it. I wrote about this subject in excruciatingly long detail back in 2012, and I’ve yet to year any argument which invalidates my misgivings about this theory. The short version of it goes something like this:

The fact that you have no examples of a thing nobody is looking for does not constitute proof that said thing does not exist.

If the ruling held up in the state supreme court I’m sure a lot of folks would like to see it go to the SCOTUS, but I’m not sure how that story ends either. The court still seems to have a track record of trying to duck out of the really tough, controversial issues, and this one might prove no exception. It’s entirely possible that they could conclude that the individual states have the right to set their own election laws, providing they meet a few minimum standards, and take a pass on issuing any sort of sweeping ruling for the entire nation. But even if that’s the case – as we’ve already seen in Pennsylvania – most courts will probably be willing to entertain the concept as not being flatly unconstitutional.