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Commonwealth Court Strikes Down Voter ID Law

January 21, 2014

By John R. Bielski

On January 17, 2014, a single judge of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania struck down those provisions of Act 18 of 2012 (“Act 18”), the Pennsylvania Voter ID Law, requiring photo identification (“photo ID”) for in-person voting. The Petitioners, challengers to Act 18, included individuals disenfranchised by the statute, as well as several organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, the NAACP, and the Homeless Advocacy Project whose membership were affected by the statute. Several other organizations, including the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, filed amicus briefs challenging the constitutionality of Act 18 under the Pennsylvania Constitution. Willig, Williams and Davidson wrote the amicus briefs to the Commonwealth Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

Petitioners made three arguments against Act 18. First, Petitioners argued that the implementation of the photo ID provisions for in-person voting under Act 18 does not comport with liberal access to a photo ID from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) as the statute requires. Second, Petitioners asserted that the Voter ID Law unduly burdens the fundamental right to vote, violating Article I, Section 5 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Third, and finally, Petitioners argued that the Voter ID Law violates the equal protection guarantees in Sections 1 and 26 of Article I of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Under Act 18, all Pennsylvania voters for the first time were required to present a photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Valid photo IDs were limited to photo IDs issued by the United States, the Commonwealth, a municipality of the Commonwealth issued to its employees; military identifications; Pennsylvania college or university photo IDs, or Pennsylvania nursing home or residential care facility photo IDs. However, other than Pennsylvania driver’s licenses, such photo IDs are valid only if they include an expiration date that has not expired.

Act 18 also authorizes PennDOT to issue a photo ID for voting purposes only, but mandates that the agency only provide such photo IDs for persons who present a birth certificate with a raised seal, a social security card, and two proofs of residency. In the initial challenge to the statute, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that this requirement did not constitute liberal access to a photo ID as required by the statute and sent the case back down to the Commonwealth Court. Later, the Commonwealth authorized the issuance of alternative photo IDs from the Pennsylvania Department of State (“DOS ID”) that had less vigorous verification requirements than required for a PennDOT voter ID.

Before addressing the merits of Petitioners’ arguments challenging Act 18, the court dealt with several preliminary arguments regarding the standing of the individual and the organizational/institutional Petitioners. Essentially the Commonwealth argued that the individual Plaintiffs' claims should be dismissed because the Commonwealth through PennDOT voting IDs and DOS IDs had permitted the individual Petitioners to acquire a statutorily acceptable photo ID. The court dismissed those arguments, concluding that the issue was simply too important to deny these individuals the right to be in court because they were the effective representatives of thousands of similarly situated people who had been disenfranchised by Act 18.

The court then dismissed the Commonwealth’s claim that the organizational Petitioners (NAACP, League of Women Voters, and the Homeless Advocacy Project) were not proper plaintiffs because, since they do not have the institutional right to vote that is possessed by individual citizens, they could not claim that their constitutional rights were violated by the requirements of the Voter ID law. The court rejected this argument, finding the organizations were interested and involved with protection of constitutional rights of citizens and were forced to waste their resources in challenging the Commonwealth’s continually changing standards for what was an acceptable photo ID, who was permitted to issue them, where they could be issued, by whom, and at what financial price. Thus, the court found the organizational Petitioners did indeed have standing to bring the lawsuit.

In addressing the Petitioners three arguments challenging Act 18, the court first found that neither the PennDOT voter ID nor the DOS ID complied with the liberal access required by the statute and mandated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In reaching this conclusion, the court concluded that the DOS ID was not authorized by the statute, which only authorized PennDOT to issue voter IDs subject to verification requirements. Even if the DOS IDs were permitted, the court found that those photo IDs did not comply with the liberal access required by the statute as the overwhelming evidence demonstrated that despite enactment of the statute nearly two years earlier, there remained extensive hurdles to obtaining the DOS ID. In fact, the court determined that hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania who were qualified to vote did not have a valid voting ID required under Act 18, while only 17,000 had obtained the necessary photo ID since the statute’s enactment.

The court also found that the voter ID requirements in Act 18 violate Article I, Section 5 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states: “[e]lections shall be free and equal; and no power, civil or military shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right to suffrage.” The court noted that Article I, Section 5 makes voting a fundamental right such that the Legislature is prohibited from unnecessarily burdening the right to vote by requiring a voter ID. In this case, the Court found that Act 18, in fact, does undermine the right to vote as it places substantial hurdles in obtaining the necessary photo ID without which a Pennsylvanian is denied the vote.

While granting Petitioners’ first two challenges to Act 18, the court rejected their argument that Act 18 violated Petitioners’ rights under the equal protection provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The court found that Petitioners were unable to demonstrate that Act 18 discriminated against a protected class of persons. In doing so, the court rejected Petitioners’ arguments that the statute impermissibly discriminates between those who have and do not have the appropriate photo ID, or constitutes invidious discrimination barred by the equal protection provisions of the state and federal constitution.

Having agreed with two of arguments of Petitioners, the court permanently enjoined the voter ID provisions of Act 18 and declared them unconstitutional. The Commonwealth may seek review of the decision by an en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court or request review of the decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Alternatively, the Legislature could pass a new voter ID statute that requires a photo ID to vote but does not result in the disenfranchisement of Pennsylvanians.

Most importantly, the court reaffirmed that Article I, Section 5 of the Pennsylvania Constitution makes voting a fundamental right, and, found the photo ID requirements of Act 18 violate that provision. In doing so, the court also acknowledged that organizations have standing to challenge statutes, such as Act 18, when forced to go to court to protect their members' rights. The latter may prove helpful as our clients continue their battle against other attacks on the rights of Pennsylvania employees.

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