Initial Thoughts on Today’s Ruling Striking Down Pa’s Voter ID Law on State Grounds

I have now had a chance to skim the 103-page Pa. trial court ruling striking down Pa’s voter id law—I will have to give a closer reading later in the day when I have the time.  But here are a few initial thoughts.

1. This is a clear victory for opponents of voter id laws, with a finding that the implementation of the voter id law violated the law’s own promise of liberal access to voter id, that the implementation exceeded the agency’s authority to administer the program, that the voter education efforts were woefully inadequate, and that as a whole the Pa. voter id program violated the Pa. constitutional’s fundamental right to vote. In this regard, it is important to note that the court rejected Pa’s argument that the law was aimed at preventing voter fraud. The judge found that the state presented no evidence the law was necessary either to prevent fraud or to keep public confidence in the fairness of the election process.

2. 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.

3. It is not clear to me whether the Pa. Supreme Court will ultimately affirm this decision or not. 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.

4. Finally, the relevance of this ruling to other voter id challenges is somewhat limited. The findings on implementation are state specific and don’t really carry over to other states. The analysis of the right to vote under the PA state constitution is also state specific, and says little about how, say, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will read its right to vote. Further, on the U.S. constitutional issues, the equal protection holding (and the rejection of the bad motivation argument) helps opponents of the laws. Finally, there is nothing in this opinion that sheds light on Voting Rights Act challenges. So in the end, this ruling says little about how other states will approach these questions, and the little that is there could help supporters of such laws.  Nonetheless, this kind of technical legal analysis will stand in tension with the PR value of a victory in a case like this—the public does not split hairs like lawyers do. It will hear that yet another voter id law was struck down as disenfranchising.

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