Pennsylvania’s new voter-identification law is unnecessary and will unduly burden the poor and elderly, a lawyer for a great-great-grandmother who is challenging the statute told a judge.
Viviette Applewhite, 93, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union. Applewhite, who once marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., said she won’t be able to vote in November under the law, which requires a photo ID to obtain a ballot. A weeklong hearing in the case, which includes nine other Pennsylvania voters, began today in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg.
“The integrity of the electoral process is not enhanced by turning away people at the ballot box,” David Gersch, an attorney for the petitioners with the law firm Arnold & Porter LLP in Washington, told Judge Robert E. Simpson. “Voting is not a privilege. It’s a right. Why is it that we need all these hoops? It’s really not necessary. It’s harassment.”
The ACLU is asking Simpson to block the law pending a final court decision. Pennsylvania, one of nine states that passed strict laws requiring a photo ID to vote, has become a test case in the voter eligibility debate after a tally by the state suggested as much as 9 percent of its electorate may be denied a chance to cast a ballot in the presidential election.
“The voter ID debate was already ignited nationally but there is certainly heightened attention to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin because they are potentially swing states,” said Daniel Tokaji, who teaches at Ohio State University’s law school in Columbus and helps direct its election-law center.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, won Pennsylvania with 55 percent of the vote in 2008, winning by 620,478 votes, fewer than the number who may be barred from the polls on Nov. 6.
Simpson said he will issue a ruling during the week of Aug. 13.
“There will be a lot of people unhappy with the decision, no matter what I do,” Simpson said to a packed courtroom. “Take heart, I’m not the last level in this matter. I’m just the way station until we get to the Supreme Court.”
The Pennsylvania law requires a state driver’s license or an acceptable alternative, such as a military ID or U.S. passport, to cast a ballot. The new requirement may disqualify 186,830 potential voters in Philadelphia, almost 25 percent of the adult residents of the state’s largest city, according to the state’s estimates.
State officials have said the law will help deter voter fraud, protect the integrity of elections, and ensure public confidence in the election process.
Patrick Cawley, an attorney for the state, said today a photo ID is a “sensible and widely available tool” that has become a common requirement in modern life. The plaintiffs have the burden of presenting “concrete evidence” of an immediate harm posed by the law and can’t speculate on possible disenfranchisement, Cawley said.
“Such fears do not have a basis and widespread disenfranchisement will not happen,” Cawley said in his opening statement. “In this day and age, nothing could be more rational than requiring a photo ID when coming to the polls.”
Applewhite, who worked as a welder on battleships during World War II, has never driven a car and can’t obtain documents needed to comply with the law, lawyers for the ACLU said. Applewhite has voted in almost every election in the past 50 years, according to court filings.
Applewhite, who was married once, testified today that she was adopted by the family of her common-law husband and took his name. She changed the name on her Social Security card and has used it ever since, Applewhite said.
Applewhite lost her Social Security card when her purse was stolen several years ago and although she recently got a copy of her birth certificate, the mismatched names would make getting a photo ID issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation difficult, her lawyers said.
“Voting is important because it gives me my rights to be able to do and say things I want to say and do,” Applewhite testified.
Another plaintiff, Wilola Lee, a 59-year-old African-American widow from Philadelphia, can’t obtain photo identification required by the law after Georgia officials told her they have no record of her birth, according to court papers filed in the case.
Today’s hearing comes amid a Justice Department investigation into whether Pennsylvania’s law violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from enacting a voting standard that discriminates against minorities. In a letter to Carol Aichele, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, the Justice Department asked to review the state’s voter registration lists in addition to driver’s license and personal identification card rosters.
About 1 million registered voters, or 12.8 percent, lack the a valid photo ID required by the law, Gersch said, citing research done by Matt Barreto, a University of Washington professor who will testify as an expert witness. To obtain a valid photo ID, residents of Pennsylvania need to provide documentary proof of citizenship, a social security card, and proof of address, according to the report.
Court action has barred enforcement of voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas. The Justice Department has blocked voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, states that need permission from the government under Section 5 of the voting act before changing election procedures because of their history of voting-rights violations.
A panel of three federal judges heard the Texas case in Washington this month. A hearing in South Carolina’s case is scheduled for next month.
Wisconsin’s voter ID law was declared unconstitutional by a state court judge in March. The state is appealing the decision.
In Florida, a federal judge blocked state officials from enforcing requirements that voter-drive groups turn over registration materials to the state within 48 hours of completion or face fines of as much as $1,000.
U.S. Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee on May 31 ruled that portions of the law “severely restrict” voter-registration drives and place “harsh and impractical” limits on groups that conduct them. Florida officials said this month in a court filing that they would appeal that ruling.
Backed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, the state’s law was enacted in March as similar measures in Republican-led states drew criticism from Democrats who say they disenfranchise minority, poor and young voters.
Pennsylvania officials argued that the law would help stem voter fraud, while later saying they weren’t aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud in the state.
“Given that the incidents of real fraud to be avoided by the law are negligible, the only fair inference is that the real purpose of the photo ID law is not ensuring the integrity of the electoral process but ensuring political advantage,” the ACLU said in court papers.
Lawyers for the ACLU cited comments made by Michael Turzai, the Republican majority leader in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, that the law will give the presidential election in the state to Republican candidate Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is the party’s presumptive nominee.
Voter ID laws could be the difference between victory and defeat in November, Tokaji said.
“If you’ve got a very close vote in a particular state, an ID law could make the difference by disproportionately burdening certain groups of voters,” Tokaji said.
Turnout for the presidential election in Philadelphia will be high as will the stakes and emotions, lawyers for the city said in papers filed in the ACLU’s case. Obama won 83 percent of the city’s vote in 2008.
Philadelphia will suffer “financially, politically and in important matters of policy” if significant numbers of its residents are disenfranchised, the city said.
“The delays and conflicts the photo ID law will create at the polls may impede or block the ability of city voters to cast their votes, regardless whether their identification passes muster under the law,” lawyers for the city said in a friend-of-the court brief filed in the case.
Seventeen states require that ID presented at polls must show a photo of the voter, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. Nine of those, including Pennsylvania, are considered “strict” voter ID laws in that voters who fail to show a photo ID are given a provisional ballot. That ballot is only counted once they show the proper identification, according to the group.
Pennsylvania announced last week that starting in late August, it will create a new voter ID card for people who provide a social security number and proof of residence, said Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Department of State. The cards would be good for 10 years, Ruman said yesterday in a phone interview.
The case is Applewhite v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 330 MD 2012, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg)