A group of individuals is suing the state to overturn Pennsylvania’s new voter identification law, saying it will deny them their constitutional right to cast ballots in elections.
The ACLU and the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights group, filed the long-awaited suit Tuesday in Commonwealth Court on behalf of ten plaintiffs, among them three elderly women who say they cannot obtain necessary documents because they were born in the Jim Crow South where states have no records of their births.
“What we’re not talking about here is not just any right we’re talking about the right to vote,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Two hundred years ago we actually fought a war for this right. This is an extremely important right.”
Gov. Corbett signed the voter ID legislation in March, after it won overwhelming , albeit partisan, passage in the General Assembly, saying it would protect the integrity of the voting process. Under the law those without driver's licenses will be able to get a non-driver's ID at no cost, but in order to do so must possess both a Social Security card and a birth certificate, which is a problem for many people.
The lawsuit says the law "severely burdens the rights of qualified voters" who have to got to great lengths and expense to obtain the identification needed to get the non-driver's ID.
The new requirements had a “soft rollout” during the Apr. 24 primary during which voters were asked for photo ID but did not have to produce it. Voters will have to produce only acceptable forms of ID in order to vote in the Nov. 6 general election.
Among those the suit says will be barred from voting is Vivian Applewhite, 92, who was born in Philadelphia and has been casting ballots since John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960. She also marched alongside Rev. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists in Georgia.
Applewhite never drove and had her purse stolen years ago. Despite paying a fee to obtain a birth certificate she has never received one from the Commonwealth, she said.
“I think it stinks,” she said on a video aired at the news conference Tuesday. “They are taking our rights away.”
Another plaintiff, Wilola Lee, 59, a retired Philadelphia schools employee, was born in rural Georgia. Lee has been voting for decades and worked as a poll worker in Philadelphia. She has been trying for nearly ten years to get a birth certificate from the state of Georgia which told her they have no record of her birth.
Ron Ruman, spokesman for Carol Aichele, secretary of the Department of State who is also named in the suit, said Aichele believes the law will stand up in court.
“We believe the law is on sound legal footing,” said Ruman. “The question that needs to be asked is, does Pennsylvania have a reliable way to identify voters? This law makes the ID verifiable.”
But Walzchak assailed what he called the Commonwealth’s “phantom claims” of voter fraud. While there have been allegations of voter fraud, state officials have produced no evidence of in-person fraud in at least the last decade.
Cases have been heard in federal and state courts in at least four Republican-controlled states that recently enacted voter-ID laws.
In March, the U.S. Justice Department blocked Texas from enforcing a photo-identification law. At the same time, a Wisconsin state judge ruled that requiring a photo ID to vote was unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, however, backed Indiana's law requiring voters to show photo identification.
Walczak said the Pennsylvania case is different from Indiana's because plaintiffs are filing suit on the basis of the state constitution, not the federal constitution and the provisions are different.
In addition the Indiana plaintiff groups were unable to produce anyone who would absolutely be affected under the new law whereas the Pennsylvania plaintiffs would certainly be unable to vote in November, he said.
"This is not hypothetical," said Walczak. "Six of out ten plaintiffs have tried to get their birth certificates and they are told 'we have no record of your birth.' No birth certificate and you can't get ID needed to vote."
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