It’s way too early to forecast the fate of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, the federal legislation introduced Thursday in response to the United States Supreme Court’s decision last June in Shelby County v. Holder which struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. This sensible new measure has bipartisan support. But already there are grumblings on the right that the bill either isn’t necessary or that it too boldly protects the rights of minority citizens to be free from what we used to call discriminatory voting practices (but which the Supreme Court wants us now to call “the exercise of state sovereignty”). But it’s not too early to know that state voter identification laws will have an exalted place of protection in the Congressional response to Shelby County no matter what the final legislation looks like. In an effort to garner bipartisan support, that is to say in an effort to appease Republican lawmakers, the bill’s sponsors specifically exempted state voter ID laws from the litany of discriminatory voting policies and practices that would count under the new “coverage formula” contemplated by Section 4 of the proposed law. It’s like proposing a law to ban football and then exempting the Super Bowl.
The VRAA tells us that it will be left to state and federal judges around the nation to render their own judgment about the constitutionality of voter ID laws. And right on cue, the day after the federal measure was introduced on Capitol Hill, a judge in Pennsylvania did just that. Following a lengthy trial last summer, and six months of agonizing delay, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley on Friday struck down Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law as violative of the constitutional rights of state voters. Here is the link to the ruling, which state Republicans were absorbing Friday as they decided whether to appeal.
The ruling is significant on its own terms, of course; it’s a major victory for voting rights advocates and a setback for vote suppressors in the state and everywhere else. As a matter of politics the import is clear. Pennsylvania is an eternal swing state—although it has swung blue most recently in national contests—and it is still considered a must-win for Democratic candidates for president. By blocking a law that would have erected practical impediments to mostly poor, young, old, and minority voters, Friday’s ruling makes it more likely that those likely Democratic voters will have their votes counted in 2014, at least.
The ruling also is important as a matter of the historical record. Pennsylvania is the state, remember, where the full racial and partisan dimensions of these voter ID laws bubbled up to the surface in 2012. That summer, one state lawmaker talked about voters being “too lazy” to get their required new ID cards. Another, the state House Majority Leader, boasted that enforcement of this very law would deliver the state to Mitt Romney. Indeed, one of the most generous components of Judge McGinley’s ruling is that he expressly discounts these motives as a basis for striking down the law.