Pennsylvania has no valid reason for implementing a new voter law requiring photo identification to cast a ballot, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union said.
The law, enacted in March, unduly burdens and disproportionately affects minorities, the poor and the elderly, Witold Walczak, an attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said on the final day of a weeklong trial in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg.
“The right to vote is not only fundamental, it’s foundational,” Walczak told Judge Robert E. Simpson. “Without the right to vote all other rights are in peril.”
The ACLU is asking Simpson to block the law pending a final court decision. The judge said he will rule on Pennsylvania’s law during the week of Aug. 13.
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.
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.
Patrick Cawley, an attorney for the state, argued that the law is “neutral and non-discriminatory” and it’s “highly unlikely” any widespread disenfranchisement will occur in November.
The ACLU, which sued along with 10 state voters, has shown “no concrete evidence that Act 18 will deprive anyone of equal protection,” Cawley told Simpson.
Backed by Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, the state’s law requires voters to have a driver’s license or another ID issued by the state’s Department of Transportation, a state ID or an acceptable alternative such as a military ID, to cast a ballot in the presidential election. Similar measures in Republican-led states have drawn criticism from Democrats, who say they disenfranchise minority, poor and young voters.
About 1.5 million prospective voters lack the type of identification needed to cast ballots in November’s election, David Burgess, deputy secretary for planning and service delivery at Pennsylvania’s Department of State, testified during the trial.
More than 889,000 names on voter registration lists couldn’t be matched to records of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, which issues photo IDs. Another 574,630 voters had expired PennDOT identification, Burgess said.
Secretary of State Carol Aichele said the state had expected fewer than 100,000 people to lack the proper identification required by the law. An initial projection by the state showing 759,000 people without either a driver’s license or alternative state ID was compiled in less than 24 hours by a staffer and isn’t accurate, Aichele said.
“The commonwealth frankly really has no idea and they’ve not made a serious effort to find out” an exact number, Walczak said.
Pennsylvania officials had 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.
“There is some evidence of an illicit interest,” Walczak said. “There is partisan gain at issue.”
Cawley disputed those claims, arguing that the state legislature had valid reasons for implementing the law, including modernizing elections and enhancing public confidence in the process.
“The legislature is uniquely qualified to regulate elections and has wide discretion when doing so,” Cawley said.
The Justice Department is investigating 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 July 23 letter to Aichele, the department asked to review the state’s voter registration lists in addition to driver’s license and personal identification card rosters.
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 last month. A hearing in South Carolina’s case is scheduled for later this month.
Wisconsin’s voter ID law was declared unconstitutional by a state court judge in March. The state is appealing the decision.
The case is Applewhite v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 330 MD 2012, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg)