HARRISBURG, Pa. — Gov. Tom Corbett put another nail in the coffin of Pennsylvania's voter identification law on Thursday, announcing he would not appeal a judge's decision that the law violated the fundamental right to vote.
The Republican governor issued a statement that defended the law, but he also said it needed changes and that he hoped to work with the Legislature on them.
"It is clear that the requirement of photo identification is constitutionally permissible," he said. "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."
The centerpiece of the law — a requirement that nearly all of the state's 8.2 million voters show photo ID at the polls — was declared unconstitutional in January by a Commonwealth Court judge who said it imposed an unreasonable burden on the right to vote and that supporters had failed to demonstrate a need for it.
The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the law, one of the strictest in the nation, two years ago. Its proponents touted it as a way to prevent voter fraud, though administration officials acknowledged they knew of no examples of voter impersonation.
Democratic state lawmakers unanimously voted against the law and accused the GOP of cynically trying to suppress voting by racial minorities, students and other left-leaning groups. The mandate also drew opposition from the AARP, labor unions and advocates for the poor.
"We commend the governor for not continuing to push this unnecessary and dangerous law that would have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of eligible voters," said Vic Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director, who worked on the case.
Corbett is battling weak job-approval ratings as he runs for re-election. Four Democrats are competing in the May 20 primary election for the nomination to challenge him in the fall.
The photo ID requirement was never enforced. The courts kept it on hold pending the resolution of a lawsuit filed on behalf of plaintiffs that included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters and Philadelphia's Homeless Advocacy Project.
Judge Bernard L. McGinley, the Democrat who presided over last year's 12-day trial, said in his January ruling that despite efforts by state officials to educate voters and provide compliant IDs, "a substantial threat still exists to the franchise of hundreds of thousands of registered electors."
During the trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs emphasized problems in distributing a special Department of State ID card that was available for free to voters who lacked acceptable ID. They said dozens of registered voters who applied for the cards before the 2012 election did not receive them until after it.
The state's attorneys argued that a publicity campaign in 2012 educated voters about the law's requirements and that the refinement of the special voting-only card ensured that any registered voter could get one.
McGinley, however, said the special ID card was "fraught with illegalities and dubious authority." He cited "overwhelming evidence" that hundreds of thousands of qualified voters lack IDs and dismissed the state's educational and marketing efforts as "largely ineffective and consistently confusing."
The law cost the government about $6 million for advertising, most of which came from the federal government, as well as nearly $1 million in costs for outside legal counsel, according to the Department of State.