A judge in Pennsylvania struck down one of the most restrictive voter identification laws in the country on Friday, in a victory for civil rights campaigners who are seeking to block voter eligibility rules they claim are discriminatory. Commonwealth court judge Bernard McGinley concluded the state’s voter ID law, introduced by Republican-controlled state legislature in 2012, disenfranchised “hundreds of thousands” of voters who could not easily meet the requirements set by the state. “Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the voter ID law does not further this goal,” the judge said, adding: “Disenfranchising voters through no fault of the voter himself is plainly unconstitutional.” The new law required voters to present photo identification proving their eligibility to vote, replacing other proof-of-address documents such as paychecks or bills. Photo identification had proven difficult for many voters to obtain, despite the state’s promises to the contrary. In one particularly damning section of his ruling, Judge McGinley found there was no evidence the legislation was even intended to stamp out voter fraud, which was the justification given by state lawmakers when they passed the law.
Although the ruling was a significant one for Pennsylvania’s 8.2 million voters, legal scholars said it had only limited implications for the rest of the country, where similar laws have passed from state to state.
The crux of the ruling was that Pennsylvania had failed to fulfil its promise of providing “liberal access” to a photo identification that would be accepted at the ballot box.
“My initial reading is that this is a great victory for opponents of voter ID laws, but it is very state-specific,” said William Yeomans, a former chief of staff in the Justice Department who is now a professor at American University in Washington.
“One very important thing is the court seemed to reject the bogus argument that the law was aimed at preventing voter fraud,” he added. “That will have some broader resonance.”