It was a big week for voters both nationally and locally with the Voting Rights Act of 2014 bill being introduced in Congress and a Pennsylvania state judge striking down the Commonwealth’s Voter ID law as unconstitutional.
The Voter ID Law, or Act 18 in Pennsylvania, one of the strictest in the nation, required all voters to show state-approved identification in order to cast a ballot. On Friday morning, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley issued an order permanently blocking the controversial law that critics said would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters. Judge McGinley’s ruling can be appealed by the commonwealth, but state lawmakers who opposed the law are pressing Gov. Corbett to abide by the judge’s decision.
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the law was an attempt by Republican lawmakers to freeze participation in the political process.
“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,” said Costa. “It was a law that should have never been approved and we are very happy that the court turned aside the measure today. There has been too much upheaval and confusion about preserving the right to vote. Plus taxpayers have had to pay too much in trying to defend this ill-conceived law. The measure was unconstitutional and political, and could not stand legal scrutiny. Simply put, it was an effort by Republicans to deny citizens access and a voice in their government that should have been dismissed. Instead of trying to find ways to stop citizens from voting, we should be doing more to encourage all Pennsylvanians to participate in elections.”
McGinley stated in his ruling that hundreds of thousands of electors in Pennsylvania lacked compliant identification, and alternate forms of ID didn’t change those figures. He also wrote in his opinion that enforcement of the Voter ID Law would have the effect of disenfranchising voters through no fault of their own. Inescapably, the Voter ID law infringes upon qualified electors’ right to vote. Disenfranchising voters through no fault of the voter is plainly unconstitutional, McGinley wrote.
“In today’s ruling, Judge Bernard L. McGinley wrote that ‘voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election.’ This law went against these freedoms, creating unnecessary barriers for Pennsylvanians exercising their right to vote. I believe this was the correct ruling, and I am hopeful we can close the chapter on this issue,” said Congressman Chaka Fattah.
On Aug. 16, 2013, Judge McGinley issued an order that extended the preliminary injunction against the Voter ID law until a decision could be made on a permanent injunction. McGinley’s earlier order also changed the so-called soft rollout for implementation of the law, removing the requirement that poll workers tell voters they must be prepared to show proper identification at future elections. Lawyers on both sides of the state’s controversial Voter ID law concluded their arguments in the trial in August, leaving the decision as to whether or not to uphold the law in the hands of McGinley.
“Today was a good day to be a Pennsylvania voter,” said Michael A. Rubin of Arnold & Porter LLP, a member of the plaintiffs’ legal team, which also includes the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Advancement Project. “In striking down this law, the court recognized that constitutional rights, especially the most fundamental right to vote, protect us from the government and cannot be taken away on the whim of that government.”
The trial on the law’s constitutionality began on July 15, 2013 and lasted for 12 days during which experts and witnesses on both sides offered testimony. Act 18, the state’s strict Voter ID law was signed off in 2012 by Gov. Tom Corbett despite strong legislative and fierce public opposition. Attorneys for the petitioners presented several witnesses who supported their case that the 2012 law unreasonably interferes with the right to vote.
Thirty-three states now have some form of voter identification law, but also have safety nets in place to prevent disenfranchisement. Pennsylvania has one of the strictest laws on the books, attorneys argued. Attorneys for the petitioners also argued that there was no evidence to support the commonwealth’s contention that the law was put in place to prevent voter fraud.
Opponents stated repeatedly that the Voter ID law would place unconstitutional burdens on more than 100,000 voters in the city. At least 186,000 registered voters in Philadelphia had no form of PennDOT identification in 2012, one of the only types of identification acceptable as proof of the right to vote. At least 175,000 registered voters had expired PennDOT identification in 2012.
“We knew when this law was proposed as a bill that it was unconstitutional and it would one day find itself below a tombstone with the epithet: ‘Unconstitutional.’ Not this commonwealth, not any state, not even the country can pass a law like this and expect it to survive the test of the U.S. Constitution or the Pa. Constitution,” said State Sen. Anthony Williams. “Requiring citizens to show certain forms of identification – IDs it knows many poor and elderly do not have – is a deliberate attempt to block our fundamental right to vote. The governor claimed there has been too much fraud on Election Day. The petitioners proved over and over again that there are isolated incidents of a con at the polls, but nothing that rises to this level of government control and interference. Unfortunately, the administration is likely to waste more tax dollars during a bad economy to take their case to the state Supreme Court. It’s time to end this right now. Some fates have already been cast in stone, and there’s nothing one party can do to stop that.”