On Wednesday, in a closely watched case, a state judge in Pennsylvania declined to block the state’s controversial voter ID law from taking effect. If the ruling is upheld on appeal, registered voters in the state will be required to show acceptable photo ID during the general election in November.
There’s been a lot of attention on this lawsuit, given the closeness of the election and greater focus on voter ID laws, which critics say could disenfranchise voters who are likely to lack photo ID, often the poor, elderly, and minorities. (To catch up on this issue, check out our guide on everything you need to know about voter ID laws.)
Yesterday’s ruling has generated plenty of criticism and concern. But it’s far from the first time a judge has ruled on voter ID laws, a number of times in favor of them. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld Indiana’s strict voter ID law, saying in 2008 that it’s constitutional.
Lawsuits have continued to crop up challenging the laws, mostly on the grounds that they violate state constitutions. Meanwhile, Republican-led state legislatures are continuing to pass the laws.
To get a real sense of where things may be going, it’s helpful to look at the past. Here’s a rundown of state court decisions on voter ID laws:
Three rulings in favor of voter ID laws
- In July 2007, in an advisory opinion sought by the state House of Representatives, the Michigan Supreme Court concluded that the state’s photo ID requirement was a “reasonable, nondiscriminatory restriction designed to preserve the purity of elections and to prevent abuses of the electoral franchise.” The court said there was no need for the legislature to prove voter fraud existed before taking “prophylactic action.” As part of the ruling, the court said the photo ID restrictions were not overly harsh. The opinion included two dissents.
- In June 2010, the Indiana Supreme Court sided with a lower court judge in dismissing a motion to toss out the state’s voter ID law. The court ruled that the law is a valid “election regulation” and held the burdens were not “sufficiently unreasonable.” In addition, the court frequently referenced the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which upheld Indiana’s voter ID law on federal constitutional grounds. The state Supreme Court’s decision included one dissent.
- In March 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling upholding the state’s voter ID law. It found the state’s photo ID requirement was a “minimal, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory restriction” and repeatedly cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision as persuasive authority. It also rejected the argument that Georgia’s Constitution afforded greater voting protections than the federal Constitution, arguing it was “coextensive” and that “we apply them as one.” There was one dissent.
Rulings against voter ID laws
In October 2006, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision striking down the state’s voter ID law for violating the state constitution. The court ruled that there was no compelling state interest to justify the burdens posed by the law. It pointed to the lack of any reported instances of voter impersonation fraud in the state and to the fact that the law was not tailored to prevent other types of voter fraud aside from impersonation. There was one dissenting vote.
Missouri passed a photo ID law again in 2011, but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. Earlier this year, a ballot proposal to amend the state Constitution for a photo ID requirement was rejected by a state judge and not revised before the legislature recessed.
In March 2012, the first of two state judges in Wisconsin to rule on the law barred enforcement of the law. The judge warned of possible disenfranchisement of voters that could include “those struggling souls who, unlike the vast majority of Wisconsin voters, for whatever reason will lack the financial, physical, mental, or emotional resources” to comply with the law.
Although the Wisconsin Attorney General filed an appeal of these two decisions to the state Supreme Court, it’s not likely the appeals will be considered before the November election.
In Wednesday’s ruling out of Pennsylvania, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson referenced many of these past court rulings, particularly the ones that upheld voter ID laws. He also stressed the need for deference to the Pennsylvania legislature. Criticism of Pennsylvania’s law had intensified after the Republican majority leader of the state’s House had been quoted saying the voter ID law would benefit Republicans. Although the judge called the remark “disturbing,” he wrote that it didn’t change his reasoning.
Pennsylvania’s photo ID requirement, the judge concluded, “is a reasonable, non-discriminatory, non-severe burden when viewed in the broader context of the widespread use of photo ID in daily life.”
That doesn’t end things for Pennsylvania. The Justice Department has launched its own investigation into some states’ voter ID laws, including Pennsylvania’s.