Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Voter ID Trial Day 1: ID to Vote is a Burden

“Elections shall be free and equal; and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.” –Article I, Section V of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Today our legal team, our friends from Advancement Project, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, the firm of Arnold & Porter, and ten courageous individuals went to Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg to challenge Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law, which is scheduled to take effect in September. Today’s hearing was the first of over a week of trial.

Judge Robert Simpson, the presiding judge, announced his intention to rule on the case, Applewhite et al v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, sometime during the week of August 13.

In his opening statement, David Gersch from Arnold and Porter said that the plaintiffs will prove the following in our case:

  •          A large number of citizens will be adversely impacted by the voter ID law
  •          PennDOT IDs can be difficult to obtain
  •          The obstacles to getting a PennDOT ID are unnecessary to vote
  •          There is an irrational distinction between voters in the law, with less burden on absentee voters than on in-person voters
  •          The commonwealth’s new, not-yet-released voting ID is a “band aid approach” that will not be sufficient to address the problem

Our team will argue to the court that the voter ID law is a violation of fundamental rights and that it makes a distinction between different types of voters that violates the constitution.

At today’s hearing, the legal team set about doing just that.

Over the course of 3 ½ hours, our lawyers called six witnesses, with a seventh testifying by video recording, who described their struggles in getting state-issued identification. The first witness was Wilola Lee of Philadelphia, a plaintiff in the case. Ms. Lee has never had a driver’s license or a non-driving ID. She has eight forms of ID, including at least five issued by her local, state, and federal governments. But none of them are acceptable for voting under the new law. Ms. Lee has spent 12 years and over $200 trying to get an ID but has been unsuccessful. She has been unable to obtain a birth certificate from the state of Georgia, her birth state.

In describing her passion for voting, Ms. Lee said, “It’s a way for my voice to be heard.”
Ms. Lee was followed on the stand by Viviette Applewhite, our lead plaintiff. Ms. Applewhite is a 93-year-old great-great-grandmother who has tried in vain to get ID for five years. She has never had a driver’s license or a non-driving ID, and her identifying documents were stolen several years ago when her purse was stolen.

Less than two weeks after we filed our lawsuit in May, Ms. Applewhite received her birth certificate from the commonwealth. The problem? It’s in her birth name. She took the name Applewhite when she was adopted as an adult (for inheritance purposes) in Mississippi. Her legal representation, Face to Face, does not have the resources to track down her adoption papers in Mississippi.

Our client Nadine Marsh, who testified via her recorded deposition, and additional witnesses Laila Stones, Stanley Garrett, and Ana Gonzalez all told similar stories of their struggles to get ID and their fear of losing the right to vote.

Today’s proceedings closed with an hour of testimony by Veronica Ludt, the legal services director of Face to Face in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Face to Face provides a variety of services to low-income residents of the community, including free meals, legal services, a medical clinic, and kids’ programs. Ms. Ludt has worked with many clients, including several of our plaintiffs, who cannot get the kind of ID required by the state’s voter ID law. Even with the help of Face to Face and Ms. Ludt, some of their clients have tried for years to get identification but to no avail.

When asked by ACLU-PA legal director Vic Walczak if Ms. Ludt knows of organizations like Face to Face in other parts of the state, she responded that she does not.

The proceedings start again tomorrow at 9am. Our first witness will be Dr. Matthew Barreto of the University of Washington, an expert on voter attitudes and behavior. Dr. Barreto estimates that more than one million Pennsylvanians do not have the ID required by the new law and that a significant percentage of the state’s citizens aren’t even aware of the law or, if they are, think they have the right form of ID but do not. Dr. Barreto’s expert report is available here.

I’ve been telling people for weeks that I’m sure of one thing about this legal challenge: Our team is going to put on a great case. Today they proved me right.

A full transcript of the hearing is available here.

ACLU-PA legal director Vic Walczak talks with reporters after today's proceedings about the lack of evidence of voter impersonation fraud and the burden of voter ID.

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