Trial begins, opponents hope to stop voter ID for good in PA

Gene Dovin, left, and his wife Bea Dovin, both of Forest City casts their votes at a polling place inside a residential garage, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in...
Gene Dovin, left, and his wife Bea Dovin, both of Forest City casts their votes at a polling place inside a residential garage, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in...
Matt Slocum/AP

As the trial weighing the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s voter identification began in Commonwealth Courts Monday, lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case say they believe they have begun the legal battle that will ultimately see the ID law declared unconstitutional.

The particular ID law is one of the strictest in the country, only accepting certain forms of government or state-issued photo ID. While it was passed more than a year ago, it has yet to take effect as the result of a series of temporary injunctions issued over concerns of potential disenfranchisement.

“This lawsuit is really about a bad law that’s badly written and can lead to only one result: that thousands of voters will lose their right to vote,” Michael Rubin—an attorney on the case from the law firm of Arnold and Porter—told reporters on a conference call before the trial.

The most famous of those voters might just be 94-year-old Viviette Applewhite, who became the face of the opposition to the voter ID law in 2012 when she spoke out about her own inability to obtain the new ID required by the law. She joined PoliticsNation in May of last year, shortly after the law was enacted, and spoke frankly about what she believed motivated the Republicans who put the law in place.

“I think that the reason that they want this ID and everything is because there’s so many of the black people that doesn’t have ID and I think it is because they don’t want Obama in there,” she told Rev. Sharpton. “So I think they’re trying to do something to keep the black people from having the right to vote.”

Applewhite’s suspicions appeared to be confirmed a little more than a month later, when Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai was caught on camera praising his party’s recent legislative accomplishment at a Republican State Committee meeting: ”Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

New voices will join Applewhite’s over the course of the trial, which is expected to last about two weeks, to share stories of how the law disenfranchises them.

That includes Mina Rickstein, a 92-year old from Center City, Philadelphia, who cast her first ballot for Roosevelt, according to lawyers from the Advancement Project. These days they say she votes in her apartment building, riding the elevator down to get to her polling place, where she even served as a poll worker in the 2013 primary. She plans to testify in the case, explaining how she has no one to drive her to the PennDOT center in order to get the voter ID she doesn’t have—and never would have needed—if not for this law.

Supporters of the law, including Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, contend that voter ID was a necessary change to state election law to combat voter fraud. But during one of the early legal battles over the law, attorneys defending it on behalf of the Commonwealth admitted that they had no data proving any widespread fraud, and Jennifer Clarke of Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia says the state has yet to provide evidence to the contrary.

The law’s opponents have provided analysis that finds more than 650,000 registered voters lack a valid PennDOT or DOS ID, more than 8% of the total number of registered voters. While the law’s supporters point to the creation of a special photo ID that is available for free to voters who need it, the opponents say only about 17,000 of those IDs have been issued to date.

With the recent Supreme Court decision gutting the pre-clearance jurisdiction of the Voting Rights Act, trials like Pennsylvania’s may become much more common, as more legal battles over voter suppression laws go to the states. In Pennsylvania, however, the state Constitution provides specific protections for the right to vote.

“State constitutions like Pennsylvania give even greater rights to vote than under federal law, and our case is under state law,” Rubin said.

“I would imagine that you’re going to see a lot of cases like this, under the state laws in addition to federal law across the country,” he added.

They also point out that while the Voting Rights Act protects against discrimination in voting laws, the argument they will make in court goes beyond the racially discriminatory parts of the law.

“Our case has an equal protection claim in it, that there is disparate impact, but that’s not our central claim” Rubin explained. ”It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, whether you’re white, Asian, whether you’re a man, a woman, a minority or not, you have a fundamental right to vote under the Pennsylvania constitution, and this law takes away that right to vote for too many people because they don’t have an ID.”

Trial begins, opponents hope to stop voter ID for good in PA