Pennsylvania Judge Strikes Down State’s Voter ID Law – Now What?

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[Image courtesy of PAVotes]

In case you missed it, last Friday was a whirlwind day for election geeks, with several stories that will likely keep me loaded with blog fodder for the foreseeable future.

One of the big stories was the invalidation of Pennsylvania’s voter ID law by a state court judge in the case of Applewhite v. Pennsylvania. The law had already been put on hold a number of times while the court investigated whether that the state could, in fact, make available to voters without ID the free IDs promised under the new law. Ultimately, the court decided that Pennsylvania would be unable to do so and thus the law violated the right to vote under the state constitution.

But, as several commentators have noted, the decision isn’t a complete victory for opponents of voter ID laws. While the judge did invalidate the law on the right to vote under the state constitution, he declined to do so on equal protection grounds, via an analysis of a state clause that closely tracks the federal constitution. As Election Law Blog’s Rick Hasen observes,

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.

Moreover, this isn’t a final decision by any stretch; this case has already been to the state Supreme Court and is almost certain to end up there again, given the high constitutional and political stakes involved. It will be interesting to see how, if at all, this ruling changes on appeal.

Hasen also has an important point about the broader impact of the latest Applewhite decision – namely, that it’s limited at best though that may get lost in the continued debate:

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. [emphasis added]

Hasen’s last point is vitally important; while lawyers may continue to argue the technicalities of voter ID, opponents of the concept have landed the latest punch in the ongoing fight in the public eye.

It was a wild Friday; stay tuned for many, many future developments …

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