NAACP calls voter ID bill 'major civil rights issue'

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Decades after the African-American community fought for the right to vote, a voter identification bill proposed for Pennsylvania could again disenfranchise black voters, members of the NAACP said Wednesday.

"We cannot let that happen," said M. Gayle Moss, president of the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP.

Ms. Moss, joined by NAACP members and religious leaders, held a news conference in the Freedom Unlimited building in the Hill District Wednesday morning. Speakers urged the state Senate to halt progress of a voter identification bill and called the legislation a tactic to disenfranchise African-American, Latino, young and elderly voters.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, would require all voters to show photo identification. Current law requires only first-time voters to show an identification card, firearms permit, utility bill, bank statement or paycheck showing name and address.

Proponents of the legislation have said the measure will prevent voter fraud, but opponents say it would disenfranchise people who do not have official photo identification, many of them minorities, senior citizens or low-income residents.

"This is a major civil rights issue," said Constance Parker, first vice president for the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP.

And it's an issue that transcends race, she said, giving the example of a young person who does not yet have a driver's license or a senior citizen who has let her identification expire as two examples of people who could face barriers to vote if the bill becomes law.

The measure, which has strong support from Gov. Tom Corbett, passed the state House in June. This month, a Senate panel amended it to allow university ID cards and cards issued by nursing home-type facilities to be accepted as valid identification. The Senate could vote on the bill early next year.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Mr. Metcalfe called it a "laughable position" that people should not have to show identification before they vote. Showing a photo ID is already required for everything from getting a library card to flying on a plane, he said.

And he said it should be required to vote to prevent fraud, which he said does happen.

"It's really outrageous that anyone would claim that it is about anything but ensuring that we have integrity in our election process," he said.

Although tales of voter fraud -- such as people voting more than once by impersonating others -- are common, verified instances of fraud are rare, Allegheny County Elections Division Manager Mark Wolosik said Wednesday.

At the NAACP news conference, speakers dismissed concerns about voter fraud as scare tactics.

"It's been presented as though there is some widespread abuse happening, and that is just not true," said the Rev. Randy Bush, senior pastor at East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

The voter identification bill is awaiting consideration by the Senate Appropriations Committee. If the measure is approved by early next year, the law would go into effect for the November general election. During the April primary, poll workers could ask for voter identification, but people without a valid ID could still cast a ballot.

As they work to halt passage of the bill, the Pittsburgh branch of the NAACP also has launched an effort to reduce the number of unregistered African-Americans in the Pittsburgh region by 10 percent.

"The vote is the biggest thing in politics. From birth to death, it's political," Ms. Parker said.

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707. First Published December 22, 2011 5:00 AM


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