ACLU of Pa. files suit over state's new controversial Voter ID law

By Jon Campisi | May 2, 2012

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed suit in Commonwealth Court on Tuesday challenging the state legislature’s recently enacted “Voter ID” law, which requires registered voters to show a photo identification to poll workers during election season.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed suit in Commonwealth Court on Tuesday challenging the state legislature’s recently enacted “Voter ID” law, which requires registered voters to show a photo identification to poll workers during election season.

The controversial measure, passed by the GOP-controlled House and signed into law by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in mid March, is designed to cut down on instances of voter fraud, its proponents say.

Opponents, mostly Democrats, claim laws like these disproportionately affect minority and poor voters, since those are the demographics most likely to not posses a photo ID; they are also the group that tends to vote Democrat.

In a May 1 announcement, the ACLU of PA said it joined the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C. law firm of Arnold & Porter in filing suit over a law that the organization claims is unconstitutional.

The various attorneys filed suit on behalf of 10 Pennsylvania voters and three prominent advocacy organizations who have allegedly been affected by the law.

“The commonwealth’s phantom claims of in-person voter fraud cannot be allowed to trump the very real disenfranchisement of long-time Pennsylvania voters,” Witold Walczak, the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legal director, said in a statement announcing the litigation. “People need to wake up to the reality that not every voter has or can get photo ID, so making it a requirement will prevent many people from exercising one of our most precious rights.”

Soon after the law was passed, officials announced that those without valid photo IDs could obtain them from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation at no cost.

Poll workers were required to ask voters for identification during the April primary election last week, but it was considered a trial run; those without proper identification were not turned away.

Come November, however, voters participating in the general election will be required to show a government-approved photo ID.

The fact that the upcoming election comprises a presidential contest has some opponents of the law concerned about the potential negative affect it could have on voter turnout.

The lawsuit, which seeks injunctive relief preventing the law from being enforced, names as defendants Gov. Corbett, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Carol Aichele, the secretary of the commonwealth.

The complaint states that an injunction is necessary to “prevent immediate and irreparable harm that cannot be adequately compensated by damages.

“The Photo ID Law threatens such harm by impermissibly burdening the fundamental right to vote and thereby disenfranchising Petitioners and many other Pennsylvania voters,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint alleges that the commonwealth has never identified actual instances of in-person voter identification fraud, which is the basis for the legislation.

The lead petitioner in the lawsuit, according to the ACLU of PA, is Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year-old black woman from Philadelphia who is a great-great grandmother who once marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She is not able to obtain the proper ID needed to vote under the new law, the organization claims.

Other petitioners include Philadelphia residents Wilola Shinholster Lee, Gloria Cuttino and Dorothy Barksdale, all African-American women born in the Jim Crow south who, like many of their generation, were never issued a birth certificate, which is required is order to obtain a state-issued ID, according to the ACLU of PA.

Additional petitioners include Nadine Marsh, a Beaver County grandmother; and Grover Freeland, a Philadelphia-area retired veteran, whose veteran’s ID card will not be a form of identification that will be acceptable come voting time.

“The commonwealth is wrong to suggest that photo identification is necessary to protect the integrity of elections. It is not,” David Gersch, an attorney with Arnold & Porter who is representing one of the plaintiff’s, said in a statement. “What threatens the integrity of elections is the commonwealth purposefully disenfranchising citizens who are qualified to vote under the Pennsylvania Constitution, are registered to vote and who as in the case of many of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit, have in fact voted regularly for decades.”

The organizations that have joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, and the Homeless Assistance Project.

In a statement, Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis said that this law, and others like it that have been enacted across the country in recent time, is designed to “turn back the clock on voting rights in our nation.

“This law deprives many eligible voters in the commonwealth – disproportionately the poor, minorities, senior citizens, young voters and people with disabilities – of their fundamental right to vote,” Dianis said. “If this law is allowed to stand it will disenfranchise thousands of voters in Pennsylvania who cannot overcome the law’s many hurdles and will undermine the basic fabric of our democracy.”

The lawsuit claims that some petitioners have already felt the pain associated with the new law. Pittsburgh resident Henrietta Kay Dickerson was required by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to pay for her ID because her old one had not been expired for more than a year, a qualification not contained in the law, but one that PennDOT is regularly enforcing.

Another plaintiff is a transgender man whose driver’s license photo contains a picture of the woman he once was. This voter is also likely to have trouble at the polls come November, the ACLU of PA claims.

Joyce Block, an 89-year-old Doylestown resident, was rejected for a photo ID by PennDOT because she didn’t have the legal documents to prove her married name on her voter registration was really the same woman as listed on her birth certificate, the ACLU of PA stated in its news release.

Block’s only evidence of who she was was her marriage certificate. The document, however, is in Hebrew, and could not be read by PennDOT staff.

“The stories of these plaintiffs illustrate the multiple barriers to obtaining state-issued photo ID,” the ACLU of PA’s statement read. “To get a PennDOT ID, individuals need to produce a raised seal birth certificate and an official Social Security card. Some people simply cannot obtain a birth certificate because one was never issued, records were destroyed, or because of clerical errors when recording the birth.”

The lawsuit also claims that the new law “irrationally” distinguishes between in-person and absentee voters because the latter can vote without photo ID, simply by writing down the last four digits of their Social Security number.

“Pennsylvania allows people to vote absentee only if they can demonstrate an impossibility of getting to the polls on Election Day,” the ACLU of PA stated. “While in-person voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, there have been far more reports of absentee ballot fraud across the country, yet under Pennsylvania’s law this form of voting is exempt from the photo ID requirement.”

The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction with Commonwealth Court, the state’s lower tier appellate court.

The plaintiffs ask for expedited discovery and a June trial date in order to allow the court to decide the case in sufficient time to permit the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review the decision in advance of the general election.

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