"Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal," state Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley wrote in a decision that set the stage for a potential courtroom showdown before the state's highest court.
McGinley, a Democrat, said the law is not constitutional because it does not require that a valid photo ID be convenient and available to voters.
"As a constitutional prerequisite, any voter ID law must contain a mechanism for ensuring liberal access to compliant photo IDs so that the requirement ... does not disenfranchise valid voters," McGinley wrote.
Gov. Tom Corbett declined to comment, saying he had not reviewed the 103-page ruling. His lawyer, James Schultz, said they could seek a review by the full Commonwealth Court or appeal directly to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The attorney general's office, which worked with the governor's office in defending the law, had no immediate comment.
The law, one of the strictest in the nation, was approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by the Republican governor in March 2012 over the protests of every single Democratic lawmaker.
Rep. Daryl D. Metcalfe, a Butler County Republican who sponsored the original, more stringent bill, called the decision "an activist ruling by a partisan Democrat judge." The fact that the law may impose a burden on voters who need an ID "doesn't give you a reason to (disregard) the voice of the people" as expressed by the Legislature, he said.
The photo ID requirement had been blocked from being enforced pending resolution of the constitutional challenge.
Friday's ruling did not strike down the entire law, but it prohibits enforcement of the photo ID requirement that is its central element.
Lawyer Witold J. Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped lead the legal challenge, said "the act was plainly revealed to be nothing more than a voter-suppression tool."
Pennsylvania's Democratic leaders charged that the law was a cynical attempt by Republicans to hold down balloting by seniors, minorities and other Democratic-leaning groups in the last presidential election. Republicans called it an election-security measure, though administration officials acknowledged that they knew of no examples of voter impersonation.
The legislation was approved during a presidential election campaign at a time other GOP-led states also were tightening their voting requirements — setting off a partisan clash that continued through Election Day.
At a 12-day trial, plaintiffs including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters and Philadelphia's Homeless Advocacy Project emphasized problems in processing and distributing a new voting-only ID card available for free to voters without a Pennsylvania driver's license or other acceptable ID. They said dozens of registered voters who applied for the cards before the 2012 election did not receive them until afterward.
Lawyers for the state defended the law, arguing that a multimillion-dollar publicity campaign in 2012 and the refinement of the special voting-only card by the Pennsylvania Department of State educated voters about the law's requirements and ensured that any registered voter who lacks an appropriate ID could get one.
In his ruling, McGinley said the special card was a "creation" of the State Department that is not authorized in the law.
It is "fraught with illegalities and dubious authority," he said.
McGinley cited "overwhelming evidence" that hundreds of thousands of qualified voters lack IDs that comply with the law and panned the state's educational and marketing efforts as "largely ineffective and consistently confusing."
The judge also said distributing the voting-only IDs through the state Department of Transportation's several dozen licensing centers was an inconvenience for voters.
"In contrast to 9,300 polling places, to obtain an ID for voting purposes, a qualified elector must overcome the barrier of transport and travel to one of PennDOT's 71 (licensing centers) during limited hours," he said.
Some quotes from the judge's ruling and reaction:
"The burdens the Voter ID Law entails are unnecessary and not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. And the record is rife with testimony from numerous Pennsylvania voters whose right to vote will be -- and indeed already has been -- denied or substantially and unnecessarily burdened by the Voter ID Law." -- Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley.
"In the full trial on the merits, (the state's lawyers) again wholly failed to show any evidence of in-person voter fraud." -- Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley.
"The right to vote is a basic right guaranteed in the Pennsylvania Constitution. The governor and his Republican leadership attempted to make it much harder for people to exercise this right. The court acted decisively to protect the basic right to vote." -- Pennsylvania House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
"We disagree with the judge's ruling. By the reasoning in that opinion, people who apply for a passport, want to board an airplane, want to hunt or fish or even see their kids in school are having an undue burden placed on them because you need photo identification." -- Stephen Miskin, spokesman, Pennsylvania House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson.
"Implementing voter ID would prevent tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians from exercising their right to vote, including elderly Pennsylvanians who've fought in our wars and worked to make our country safe. Voter ID is crumbling under the weight of its own faulty premises and misguided reasoning." -- U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
"While I am extremely disappointed with today's decision, the Republican Party of Pennsylvania will continue to serve as a leading advocate for policies that ensure a fair right to vote for all Pennsylvanians." -- Rob Gleason, chairman, Pennsylvania Republican Party.
"It was clear from the introduction of this bill that voter ID was simply a blatant, political scheme designed to confuse and disenfranchise Pennsylvania voters." -- Jim Burn, chairman, Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
"The law was passed by the Legislature, signed by the governor and the attorney general and Office of General Counsel worked to defend the law. We'll continue to do so, but making our judgment as to whether we go to the next step, we have to review the opinion." -- James D. Schultz, general counsel, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.
"I respect Judge McGinley's very thoughtful decision in this matter. The Office of Attorney General will continue to defend the rights of all Pennsylvanians, and we will work with all related Commonwealth agencies to carry out this decision and ensure that all voters have access to free and fair elections." -- Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
"As we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and next, this serves as a reminder that the movement is not over and the battle can be won." -- Jerry Mondesire, president, NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.
"(It was) an activist ruling by a partisan Democrat judge. He's making arguments for the left in rejecting this." -- Pennsylvania House Rep. Daryl D. Metcalfe, R-Butler, sponsor of the bill.
"If upheld, this law would have had catastrophic consequences throughout the entire state by undermining access to the ballot." -- Susan J. Carty, president, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.
"This ruling is a monumental victory for those who believe that in a democracy, elections should be free, fair and accessible to all people." -- Penda D. Hair, co-director, Advancement Project.