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93-year-old leads fight vs. voter ID

Last modified: 7/26/2012 12:00:00 AM
The debate over a Pennsylvania great-grandmother's right to vote will put the state's new voter identification law to the test as advocacy groups ask a judge to bar legislation they say will suppress voting by minorities.

Viviette Applewhite, 93, who is a great-great grandmother, 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., won't be able to vote in November under the new law which requires a photo ID to obtain a ballot. A weeklong hearing in the case, which includes nine other Pennsylvania voters, began yesterday in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg. The ACLU is asking a judge to block the law pending a final court decision.

'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.

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 the state's electorate may be denied a chance to cast a ballot in the presidential election.

President 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.

'The photo ID law is unconstitutional because it unduly burdens the fundamental right to vote,' lawyers for the ACLU said in court papers filed July 18. 'The purported purposes of the photo ID law are an unacceptably weak reed to justify so great an incursion on the rights of Pennsylvanians.'

The Pennsylvania law requires a state driver's license or an acceptable alternative, such as a military ID, 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.

Undue burden

Applewhite, who worked as a welder 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, who has voted in almost every election in the past 50 years, tried to order a birth certificate from Pennsylvania's Division of Vital Records at least three times after her purse and other important documents were stolen, according to court filings. She never received one.

Another plaintiff, Wilola Lee, a 59-year-old African- American widow from Philadelphia, can't obtain photo identification required by the law after the state of Georgia told her they have no record of her birth, according to court papers filed in the case.

The 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.

Wisconsin, Texas

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. Florida officials told a federal appeals court that they may seek to reverse a lower-court order blocking the enforcement of the state's restrictions on voter-registration groups.

'Harsh and impractical'

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.

This month, Florida officials said in a court filing that they would appeal that ruling.

Backed by Pennsylvania Gov. 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 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.

'Political advantage'

'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 group 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. Turzai is named as a subpoenaed witness in the case, according to a list submitted by the ACLU.

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.


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