HARRISBURG — In a move that surprised many political observers, Gov. Tom Corbett announced Thursday that his administration will not appeal a Pennsylvania court ruling against the state's controversial voter ID law.
A Commonwealth Court judge had ruled in January that the law was unconstitutional as it imposed an unreasonable burden on voters. The administration had been expected to appeal that decision to the state's Supreme Court. Judge Bernard McGinley had said the law "unreasonably burdens the right to vote" and threatened a fundamental right of hundreds of thousands of qualified voters.
Even though the Republican governor's statement indicated he wouldn't pursue further legal appeals, it appeared to leave the door open for potential further legislation requiring photo ID for voting.
"Based upon the court's opinion, it is clear that the requirement of photo identification is constitutionally permissible. However, the court also made clear that in order for a voter identification law to be found constitutional, changes must be made to address accessibility to photo identifications," a statement from Mr. Corbett's office said.
"A photo identification requirement is a sensible and reasonable measure for the Commonwealth to reassure the public that everyone who votes is registered and eligible to cast a ballot. The Administration will work with the General Assembly to address these issues. However, through the current legislative term, we must remain focused on passing a balanced budget and addressing ongoing legislative priorities," the statement said, indicating that no action would come before the June 30 budget deadline or the November elections.
Democrats greeted the news with undisguised glee Thursday.
"After spending millions of dollars on a confusing and expensive ad campaign, and to defend the law in court, the governor finally opened his eyes and saw the light," House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said in a statement.
"From the beginning, the voter ID effort was really a political effort to depress turnout among certain groups of voters. After it became law, the House Republican leader told an audience that the law was going to help Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania's electoral votes in 2012. I am proud that not one Democratic legislator voted for this law and we are glad to see it consigned to the trash can."
Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, said in a statement that the governor "made the right decision. It's time to move on from what has become a divisive debate, and work together on a secure and available electoral process. One option to strengthen confidence in our voting system would be to provide Pennsylvanians the option of registering to vote online, which has been proven to improve voter data accuracy and reduce the potential for fraud."
The law had passed the Republican-controlled Legislature in March 2012, over the strenuous objection of Democrats, who said it would disproportionately hurt minorities, the elderly and poor voters.
The law required Pennsylvania voters to show one of several forms of photo identification -- a driver's license or passport, but not welfare cards or the many college IDs that lack expiration dates. Pennsylvania is one of several states that in recent years have approved laws requiring voters to show identification, and the state's law received national attention ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
A number of the strict photo ID laws passed in various states in recent years have seen court challenges, said Wendy Underhill, program manager for elections at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Court rulings on the matter have been mixed, she said, depending on various state constitutions, if a state has a plan that allows voters to get a free ID and if the state has a good voter education campaign.
Pennsylvania's law was challenged in court by a number of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Advancement Project, and the Washington, D.C., law firm Arnold & Porter LLP.
"We commend the governor for not continuing to push this dangerous and unnecessary law that would have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of eligible voters," said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, after hearing the news of Mr. Corbett's decision.
Chris Borick, a professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown, said he was surprised by the governor's decision, given the popularity of voter ID laws among the Republican base.
"Most of the opponents [of the law] are unlikely to warm up to Tom Corbett," Mr. Borick said.
Kate Giammarise: 717-787-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.