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State judge voids parts of Pennsylvania's voter ID law

The measure passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature was one of the nation's toughest and 'suggests a legislative disconnect from reality,' the judge said.

By Timothy M. Phelps

11:04 PM PST, January 17, 2014

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WASHINGTON — A Pennsylvania judge struck down key parts of the state's tough voter identification law Friday, saying that it created an ordeal for hundreds of thousands of people who wish to vote but lack a driver's license or U.S. passport.

The law was passed by the GOP-controlled state Legislature before the 2012 presidential election, when Pennsylvania was thought to be a key battleground between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. One of the toughest such laws in the nation, it required most voters to have a government-issued ID with an expiration date. To obtain an ID, some people had to travel long distances to state Department of Transportation offices, sometimes making repeated visits.

Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley said the ID requirement violated state voting law and the state constitution.

"The voter ID law as written suggests a legislative disconnect from reality," McGinley said.

However, he ruled against the American Civil Liberties Union and other challengers who asked him to declare that the provisions violated the state and federal constitutional right to equal protection.

Because the ruling is based on Pennsylvania law, it may have limited effect on voter ID laws pushed through by Republicans in other states.

The Justice Department is challenging similar laws in Texas and North Carolina.

Friday's ruling comes after more than 18 months of litigation, including three trials and a state Supreme Court preliminary injunction preventing the new requirements from going into effect.

Pennsylvania officials acknowledged that the tighter requirements meant that as many as 750,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania did not have an acceptable identification and could face the loss of their voting rights.

"Today, the Commonwealth Court issued a permanent injunction to the implementation of the voter identification law passed by the General Assembly in 2012," said James D. Schultz, General Counsel to GOP Gov. Tom Corbett. "We continue to evaluate the opinion and will shortly determine whether post-trial motions are appropriate."

ACLU lawyer Witold Walczak called the ruling a "devastating indictment of the Pennsylvania voter ID law."

The civil rights group challenged the law on behalf of several elderly, disabled and homeless people who could not easily get to state driver's license facilities.

"Requiring electors who lack [a driver's license or passport] to get to a [driver's license office] that may or may not be in their county, and may be several miles away and unreachable by public transport, is untenable," ruled McGinley, who is a Democrat.

McGinley cited "overwhelming evidence" that hundreds of thousands of qualified voters lack the needed identification, and he criticized the state's educational and marketing efforts as "largely ineffective and consistently confusing."

He said there was no evidence of fraud that would justify such a law in the first place.

tim.phelps@latimes.com

Staff writer Michael Muskal contributed to this report from Los Angeles.