Pennsylvanians get to vote without photos

Those who are interested in electoral matters, particularly the right to vote, shouldn’t miss last Friday’s judgement in Pennsylvania, striking down that state’s law on voter identification.

The Republican majority in the Pennsylvania legislature had passed the law, in March 2012, to require all voters to present a valid photo ID of a specified type. Since the sort of voters who might not have a driver’s license or the like are more likely to be Democrats, the clear intention was to assist Republican candidates – especially in that year’s presidential election, in what could easily have been a critical state.

It didn’t happen that way, because a month before the election the law’s opponents secured a temporary injunction against enforcing it. (Actually not all of it – the court said that polling officials could still ask people for ID, they just couldn’t stop them from voting if they didn’t have one.) That left the constitutionality of the law still to be litigated.

Friday’s judgement, by judge Bernard McGinley in the Commonwealth Court, isn’t final either; the state is expected to appeal, and it will probably find its way to the United States Supreme Court. In the 2008 case of Crawford v. Marion County Election Board the Supreme Court upheld an Indiana voter ID law, so Republicans will be hoping for a similar result here.

But there are important differences. Indiana’s ID requirements were less stringent than Pennsylvania’s, and the Pennsylvania law, unlike the Indiana one, had actually been in operation for a time, so the judge was able to look at how it worked. (Especially at the new free state-issued IDs, which he found were much harder to get than the state had claimed.)

Most importantly, Crawford was decided on the basis of the federal constitution, whereas McGinley relied on Pennsylvania’s own constitution, which is much more robust in its assertion of the right to vote.

On that basis, McGinley was clear that the voter ID law failed to pass muster. He found that it “renders Pennsylvania’s fundamental right to vote so difficult to exercise as to cause de facto disenfranchisement.” Some of his language about the law was fairly scathing; at one point he remarked that the “law as written suggests a legislative disconnect from reality.”

It’s certainly a setback to the Republican project of restricting voting rights, but its immediate relevance to other states is limited. Nor is it clear that the effect of such laws is as great as both their supporters and opponents claim.

Pennsylvania was unable to produce any evidence of the sort of voter fraud that the law was ostensibly designed to prevent. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, were able to convince the court that a large number of voters might be disenfranchised; perhaps of the order of half a million (compared to a total of about 5,750,000 votes cast). But it’s the nature of the case that the large majority of those without ID –  the poor, the young, the itinerant and the elderly – would be unlikely to vote anyway.

Restricting or expanding voter turnout in the US goes well beyond the battle over voter ID laws. More people are probably deterred by the fact that voting happens on a weekday, as well as by the general dysfunctionality of the political system.

Indeed, there could hardly be a better example of the latter than the fact that Republicans are fixated on enacting and defending laws to stop their opponents voting, rather than measures that might induce them to change their minds.

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