Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Ruled Unconstitutional

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PA Voter ID Ruled Unconstitutional by Commonwealth Court.

This morning, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley struck down Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law as unconstitutional.  Judge McGinley’s condemnation of this law is clearly noted in his opinion.  He said, in part,

“[The Voter ID Law is] invalid and unconstitutional on its face as the provision and issuance of compliant identification does not comport with liberal access and unreasonably burdens the right to vote….

Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.”

And most powerfully in my opinion:

“The right to vote, fundamental in Pennsylvania, is irreplaceable, necessitating its protection before any deprivation occurs. Deprivation of the franchise is neither compensable nor reparable by after-the-fact legal remedies, necessitating injunctive and declaratory relief.”

You can read a copy of the full opinion on the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia’s website. I am so pleased to see this decision.  I have followed this bill since it’s outset. In 2011, as President of Pennsylvania NOW I wrote about some of the problems with the law before it was enacted; this blog includes a copy of the letter I sent to members of the House State Government Committee detailing problems with the law.

Then after it was enacted in 2012, I was asked to testify in Commonwealth Court about the problems I observed in people attempting to obtain a Voter ID.   I told the Court what I had observed at the PennDOT licensing center in Pleasant Gap regarding problems in obtaining a photo id. These problems included lack of timely public transportation to and from the facility, lack of knowledge of the staff about the voter id law, inaccurate paperwork, long lines, and how women changing their names on their drivers’ licenses could be disenfranchised.

I also mentioned that I had used a photo id that did not meet the state’s Voter ID Law guidelines. Yet, it was accepted without question by the poll workers when I went to vote in the primary during the so-called “soft roll-out period.”

You can read more about that testimony and how accessing a photo id can specifically block access to the ballot for married women in a blog I wrote on this issue last year.

My thanks go to the legal team put together by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Advancement Project, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the Washington, DC law firm of Arnold & Porter. They successfully argued over the last 18 months that this law was and is unconstitutional under Article I. Section 5 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution.

But the battle may not be over.  Attorney General Kathleen Kane (D) argued in favor of the law before the Commonwealth Court.  News reports indicate that she hasn’t yet decided whether or not to appeal Judge McGinley’s decision to the Supreme Court.

Your voice needs to be heard.  And it can be.  Right after the decision was announced, my colleague, Michael Morrill, Executive Director of Keystone Progress, created a MoveOn petition to AG Kane asking her to let the decision stand and not appeal the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  I signed and commented that:

I am one of the people who testified in Commonwealth Court in 2012 about the problems I observed in people attempting to obtain a Voter ID and about my testing the knowledge of poll workers in correctly interpreting the law (they accepted an invalid photo id that did not meet the requirements of the law during the testing period before the law was enjoined; I used it again at another election and once again, they told me it was valid).

Don’t play games with our elections. As Judge McGinley stated, “the law is “invalid and unconstitutional on its face as the provision and issuance of compliant identification does not comport with liberal access and unreasonably burdens the right to vote.” Let his ruling stand.

You too can add your voice.  Please do so.  Thanks.

Update 5 pm January 17, 2014

Attorney General Kathleen Kane released a press statement at 4 pm today in response to the Commonwealth Court’s ruling this morning. Here’s what it says,

“I respect Judge McGinley’s very thoughtful decision in this matter. The Office of Attorney General will continue to defend the rights of all Pennsylvanians and we will work with all related Commonwealth agencies to carry out this decision and ensure that all voters have access to free and fair elections.”

Q&A regarding Attorney General Kane’s position:

1. How does this decision affect Attorney General Kane’s previous concerns?

Attorney General Kane’s previous concern and legal analysis mirrored the concern and ultimate decision of the courts in that implementation may not be sufficient to ensure free and fair elections.

2. What happens now in terms of an appeal?

The Office of Attorney General is awaiting direction from its client.”

Voter ID Laws Block Women’s Votes

In the early spring of 2012, Pennsylvania passed its restrictive photo voter id law that is similar to the one in Texas discussed in Nel’s New Day. That summer, I testified in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court about my observations at the PennDOT licensing center in Pleasant Gap about the problems I observed in obtaining a photo id. These included lack of timely public transportation to and from the facility, lack of knowledge of the staff about the voter id law, inaccurate paperwork, long lines, and how women changing their names on their drivers’ licenses could be disenfranchised.

 

This last problem is one I saw in addition to all of the issues for women voting that are raised in Nel’s blog. Here’s what I observed.

 

A woman came in and said that she had just gotten married and needed to change her name on her driver’s license. She asked for the paperwork. The employee said rather than filling out the paperwork and paying for a replacement driver’s license, he could give her a piece of paper to carry with her current license showing her new name. Since Pennsylvania’s voter id law requires the name to be “substantially the same” on the voting records and the driver’s license, any woman taking this suggested route could end up being disenfranchised since what is on the id doesn’t match her new legal name and will not match the voting registration if she has made the change with the elections office. Had she gone through the paperwork and paid for the new license, she could have done a voter registration update at the same time since PennDOT is one of the recognized state voter registration sites. None of that was offered.

 

As a result of the Commonwealth Court case, the Pennsylvania Voter ID law has been temporarily enjoined. I wrote about the case in January of this year. The second stay came in March and the third one came after the primary. That stay says that until the constitutional issues surrounding the Voter ID law are resolved, photo ids can be asked for but cannot be required. First time voters will still need some form of identification (but doesn’t have to be a photo id; for example, it could be a copy of an utility bill).

 

As Nel states at the end of her blog, we here in Pennsylvania are hoping for the same thing:

“Let us hope that the lawyers will carefully explain to the judges the [constitutionally] discriminatory basis for voter ID laws and that the judges will believe them.”

Nel's New Day

GOP legislators and governors have found many ways to disenfranchise voters who might possibly vote against them: gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter list purging, etc. The Supreme Court decision that struck down Section 4 of the almost 50-year-old Voters Rights Act created even more havoc for voters. The tipping point against these actions may have come this fall in Texas.

Last night Rachel Maddow laid out the Texas problem on her show. It starts with a Texas law that mandated that all married women must use her maiden name as the middle name, a change resulting in a mismatch between the name on voter registration and driver’s license for women. The information went viral after Sandra Watts, judge in the 117th District Court, was challenged when she tried to vote. Watts has voted in every election for the past 49 years, the name on her driver’s license has stayed…

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