Bid to forestall voter ID law given hearing in Harrisburg
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HARRISBURG -- The hearing held in an attempt to stop a voter ID law from taking effect for the November elections opened Wednesday with several Pennsylvanians testifying they had faced obstacles obtaining proof of their identity.
A coalition of people and organizations is arguing in Commonwealth Court that the law will disenfranchise as many as 1 million eligible voters who are unable to obtain an approved form of photo identification. Among the people they say could be stopped from voting is Leila Stones, a 53-year-old Philadelphia resident born at home in Virginia. Ms. Stones told the court she has tried without success to obtain a record of her birth that would allow her to receive an ID to vote.
Asked what she thinks about the requirement that voters show photo identification at the polls, Ms. Stones smiled and paused.
"I'm really disappointed," she said. "They take my right to vote away, and who am I?"
At the start of the high-profile hearing, which is expected to continue through next week, Judge Robert Simpson said he expects to make a decision by mid-August to allow time for appeals before the general election.
The Republican-backed measure signed into law in March by Gov. Tom Corbett requires voters to show a form of photo identification issued by the state or federal government, a municipal employer or a Pennsylvania university or nursing home. People who arrive at the polls without an acceptable ID can cast ballots that would count if they verify their identity within six days or affirm that they are indigent.
Since the law took effect, the Department of State has unveiled new ways for people without birth certificates to obtain an acceptable ID. It has announced it can verify for free the birth certificates of people born in Pennsylvania and that drivers whose licenses expired in 1990 or later can get a new ID without showing a birth certificate or other identification.
Attorneys for the state argued the case is about the prevalence of photo identification requirements for many common tasks. In his opening, Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley said a new form of voter ID under development by the Department of State would reach voters who lack the birth certificate needed to obtain some forms of photo ID on the list. Voters need only their Social Security number, date of birth and proof of residence, according to the Department of State.
Mr. Cawley rejected a claim by David Gersch, an attorney for the challengers, that the state made a broad concession when it agreed in a court document that it knows of no cases of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania. He said the state does not need to provide evidence of in-person voter fraud to defend the constitutionality of the law. If legislators "could imagine a valid reason for a statute" and write a law that achieves that purpose in a rational way, he said, they have met their constitutional burden.
The parties challenging the law called Veronica Ludt, who directs the legal center at a Philadelphia human services organization called Face to Face, to testify about the difficulties that poor people can face in obtaining vital records like birth certificates. She described attorneys frustrated by the bureaucratic morass some clients face in securing a record of their birth.
"It's very confusing," she said. "You know I'm an attorney here, and I'm very confused because of the different requirements of the different states."
One client Ms. Ludt succeeded in helping obtain a birth certificate was Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year-old Philadelphia resident and the lead plaintiff in the case. Ms. Applewhite testified that she had lost her Social Security card and other forms of identification when her purse was stolen years ago. But because she changed her name as an adult, her attorneys said the mismatch between her birth certificate and Social Security card throw into question whether she could obtain the needed form of identification.
While attorneys for the challengers questioned their witnesses about their attempts to acquire forms of ID, lawyers for the state asked if they knew their Social Security numbers and if they could get to a Department of Transportation office. Ms. Applewhite said she knows her Social Security number "by heart" and could travel to a licensing center.
First Published July 26, 2012 12:00 am