Voter ID laws need to be countered, NAACP, ACLU say

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Last Friday, Vic Walczak got "the best birthday present of my life.''

That was the day that state Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley ruled that Pennsylvania's controversial voter ID law violated the state constitution. Mr. Walczak, legal director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, reviewed that decision, while other civil rights activists called for new voting rights protections at the federal level during a news conference this morning sponsored by the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director of the NAACP, urged passage of proposed legislation designed to counter the effects of a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that voided a longstanding requirement that some states and jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory practices pre-clear any changes in voting procedures with the U.S. Justice Department.

In the majority opinion on the 5-4 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts ruled that the formula dictating which jurisdictions are subject to the heightened scrutiny was unconstitutional because it was based on decades-old data and did not reflect current conditions.

Connie Parker, president of the Pittsburgh NAACP, joined in calling for the remedial legislation while hailing the Commonwealth Court finding that the state law imposed an unreasonable burden.

"We worked so hard to win this war; we must realize how valuable it is and come out to vote,'' she said.

The administration of Gov. Tom Corbett has said that it will ask the court to review its ruling but it has not yet said whether it will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

"I'm somewhat surprised that the Corbett administration has not been more aggressive,'' Mr. Walczak said, referring to its reticence on discussing whether it will pursue an appeal to the state's high court.

He noted that while the administration had continued to insist that the law's requirements were reasonable, the challengers had demonstrated to the court that literally thousands of potential voters in the state lacked the forms of identification required by the law.

Mr. Shelton expressed optimism that Congress would move to protect voting rights on another front. He referred to a proposal to revise the federal Voting Rights Act in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last June that threw out the requirement that certain "covered jurisdictions,'' chiefly a group of Southern states with a history of discriminatory practices, submit any changes in voting procedures to the Justice Department for approval before putting them into effect.

At the same time, he called for changes in the legislation to expand the definition of "covered jurisdictions.'' Under the current language of the proposed fix to the law, just four states would be covered. Under the provisions voided by the justices, all or parts of another nine states were subject to the pre-clearance requirement. Mr Shelton said that it was important to amend the bill to allow a broader net for pre-clearance scrutiny, but at the same time he said that the measure would be a major step forward.

The bill's prime sponsors are Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc. Mr. Shelton said that bipartisan support boosted his optimism that the legislation could pass the divided Congress.


James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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