Lawsuit planned over Pennsylvania's voter ID law
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald talks about taking legal action to challenge the voter ID law at a news conference Friday in the courtyard of the Allegheny County Courthouse.
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Democrats on Allegheny County's election board plan to challenge the state's new voter ID law as being too expensive and too difficult to implement in time for the November presidential election.
That claim will be at the heart of a lawsuit the election board is expected to bring next week, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at a news conference Friday. Rather than challenging the constitutionality of the law itself, as the American Civil Liberties Union and others are doing, local officials say the new law is too complicated and expensive to put in place by Nov. 6. Mr. Fitzgerald is one of three members of the election board.
The new law requires voters to show government-approved photo identification before they can cast ballots.
Mr. Fitzgerald said it would be prohibitive for the county to train the more than 6,500 poll workers who man the county's 1,300 polling places. He said there would not be enough time to train them in new procedures required to check identifications and allow voters to use provisional ballots if they don't have proper ID.
More than a dozen Democrats holding Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and state elected offices joined Mr. Fitzgerald in expressing support for their planned suit.
The new law contains other major flaws, Mr. Fitzgerald said. The measure is constitutionally questionable and would make it harder for the elderly, minorities and some veterans to vote, he warned.
Other opponents of the law used harsher language. State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, called the measure part of a nationwide Republican effort "to steal an election this November."
Mr. Fitzgerald and county Councilman John DeFazio, D-Shaler, chairman of the election board, and another board member, Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, plan to hold a special meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday. Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. DeFazio said they already have decided to bring the suit.
Their remarks drew criticism from Ms. Heidelbaugh, who said the two Democrats might be violating provisions of the state's open meetings law by discussing the measure before Tuesday's meeting. "And what's the emergency?" she asked. "There is already a suit pending in Commonwealth Court brought by the ACLU."
She said she would not support a challenge to the law.
The voter ID law, signed by Gov. Tom Corbett in March, has divided the state Legislature along party lines with Republicans, who control both houses of the Legislature, and the governor's office supporting the new requirement.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Advancement Project, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Washington, D.C., law firm of Arnold & Porter last month asked Commonwealth Court judges to overturn the law. Their complaint alleges that the photo ID requirement violates the state Constitution by making it harder for some citizens, especially the elderly and minorities, to vote.
Backers of the identification law say it will reduce existing and potential voter fraud. Its terms are similar to laws recently passed in other states.
About 99 percent of the state's 9.6 million eligible voters already have photo identification that will be acceptable at polling places, Nick Winkler, a spokesman for the state Department of State, said. His department, which oversees elections, has launched efforts to get appropriate IDs into the hands of the remaining 96,000 Pennsylvanians who will need them on Nov. 6, he said.
"We have been going to churches, to nursing homes and to senior expos to let people know about the new rules," Mr. Winkler said. "We are committed to making sure that the remaining 1 percent know what they will need, and we'll help them get it."
State driver's license centers are offering free non-driver IDs to people without licenses, he said. Anyone who has had a driver's license since 1990 should still be in the PennDOT system and will not need to produce their birth certificates or other evidence to get a new state identification card, he said.
In a separate action, county Controller Chelsa Wagner has filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the ACLU suit. Like Mr. Fitzgerald, she described the new rules requiring poll workers to review photo IDs as an "unfunded mandate" that would cost counties about $11 million to implement.
She also called on the Justice Department, which has sought to overturn poll-identification laws in South Carolina, Texas and Florida, to bring a similar legal action in Pennsylvania.
A recent poll indicated that the voter ID law was supported by 87 percent of state residents. Janet Kelley, a spokeswoman for Mr. Corbett, said there was a good reason for the measure's broad support. "It provides a reliable way to verify voters' identities at the polls, ensuring only those legally entitled to this right cast ballots," she said.
The state plans to spend $5 million in federal voter-education money to inform residents about the new law, she said. This work will be augmented by educational efforts by staff members, legislators and civic groups, including the Pennsylvania Library Association, she said.
A description of acceptable photo IDs and a list of frequently asked election questions are available at www.votespa.com. Information also is available by calling 1-877-VOTESPA (1-877-868-3772).
First Published June 16, 2012 12:00 am