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A state judge strikes at the heart of GOP's 'Voter ID' law

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At some point, I'm going to start feeling sorry for Gov. Tom Corbett.

One month after a state Supreme Court ruling blew up key portions of the state's fracking-friendly gas-drilling law, Corbett's legal team got another shock. Last week, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley issued a blistering 103-page opinion dismantling the state's "Voter ID" law.

"Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID law does not further this goal," McGinley's opinion flatly declared. Requiring a photo ID, he added, was unconstitutional "on its face."

After hearing expert testimony on both sides, McGinley determined that "hundreds of thousands" of voters lacked photo IDs. And it made no sense, he ruled, to burden them because of "a vague concern about voter fraud."

Evidence in the case showed that the voter-ID requirement would have burdened everyone from transgender voters — whose IDs frequently don't match their appearance — to rural residents, many of whom would have to obtain an ID from far-flung PennDOT license centers in other counties.

By contrast, reports of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania — the kind voter ID is supposed to stop — are anecdotal, if not apocryphal. In a telephone conference with reporters, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania legal director Vic Walczak said, "When we put the Commonwealth's claims of in-person voter fraud to the test ... they couldn't even get out of the starting blocks."

McGinley had tough words not just about how the legislature wrote the law, but about how the Corbett administration implemented it. Among other things, he accused the state of "creat[ing] a culture of misinformation" with a public-awareness campaign that was "consistently confusing." Even as the state scrambled to make IDs easier to obtain, he wrote, it did little to notify voters of those changes.

Many of those changes were problematic in themselves, McGinley wrote. Early on, the Corbett administration realized that the ID requirements spelled out in the law wouldn't pass constitutional muster. So it devised a new, supposedly easier-to-get ID to be issued by the Department of State rather than PennDOT. But McGinley found that the law gave Corbett no authority to do so; Corbett had, he wrote, "overstepped legislative constraints."

You have to ask: If a governor can't adequately disenfranchise voters and suck up to the fossil-fuel industry without stepping on the toes of a GOP-controlled legislature ... what kind of Republican is he?

But is this really all Corbett's fault? After all, the Voter ID bill was passed in March 2012, and it gave Corbett just eight months to have its requirements in place by the 2012 presidential election. (Other states with voter-ID requirements, by contrast, phased them in over years.) And McGinley does opine that provisions of the law demonstrated a "legislative disconnect from reality." Which can mean only one thing:

Paging state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe!

It was Metcalfe, of course, who originally sponsored the voter-ID law. Predictably, he denounced McGinley's opinion as "an activist ruling by a partisan Democrat judge."  Which is partly true: McGinley is a Democrat. His concern that Corbett overstepped the law, though, is shared by none other than Metcalfe himself: "The executive branch has gone farther than what the law allows them to do," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2012.

McGinley's ruling can be appealed. Corbett was mulling his options as of press time, but he's already under pressure from right-wingers.

"The fact that the Governor has yet to announce an appeal ... is extremely troubling," the Philadelphia-based Independence Hall Tea Party asserted exactly one business day after the ruling was handed down. "If the Governor refuses to fight for [voter ID], why should we fight for his re-election?"

So there's the Tea Party mindset, the one Corbett is catering to: "We'll stay home on Election Day, unless you fight to keep everyone else away from the polls." It's a mindset that believes if government ensures rights for the rest of us — whether to marry or to vote — it somehow means fewer rights for them.

Maybe next time, Corbett should try disenfranchising a different group of voters. Because he's not doing all that well with the far-right base he's got.

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