ACLU sues To Block Pennsylvania Voter ID Law
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has launched a lawsuit challenging a state law that requires voters to show photo identification before they are allow to cast their ballot, claiming that residents who have voted for decades will be disenfranchised.
- Plaintiff who marched with Martin Luther King lacks documentation required to vote in November
- Law expected to turn poor, minority, elderly and college-aged voters away from polling places
- Estimates of how many people to be affected range from 80,000 to over half a million
Stripped of Civil Rights
The lawsuit includes 10 plaintiffs who say they will be prevented from voting in November’s election. Perhaps the most prominent is Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year-old Philadelphia woman who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement and has voted since 1960.
Applewhite never had a drivers license, and lost the rest of her identification years ago when her purse was stolen. Officials have told her they can’t find a birth certificate on file for her, so she has no way to get a Pennsylvania ID, and consequently, won’t be able to vote.
The bitter irony of a woman being stripped of a right she marched for 50 years ago is compelling, and Applewhite is just one of tens of thousands of people who may not be able to cast a ballot in November’s presidential election thanks to the ID law.
“You don’t have to march with King to be able to vote,” says Witold Walczak, legal director of ACLU-PA. “There are people who voted for decades and nobody could question they have the right to vote. And now they don’t have the right to vote? It’s ridiculous.”
Minorities, Elderly and the Poor
Estimates of how many citizens will be affected have varied wildly. State officials suggesting 80,000 to 90,000 people in the state might lack identification; other reports claim that up to half a million voters in Philadelphia alone don’t have the proper documents.
Even at the low end of the estimates, Walczak notes, the law still has a vast reach. “Ninety thousand is a huge number,” he says. “Think about having a law saying you can’t exercise your right unless you do something. And 90,000 people don’t have something in order to exercise that right.”
Minorities, the poor and the elderly are especially likely to be affected by not possessing the required documents. The legislation also does not allow for ID cards that do not come with an expiration date, a move that appears to be designed specifically to keep college students away from polling stations.
State officials claim that the law is necessary to stop voter fraud. The same officials, however, have never produced evidence of even a single case of fraud in Pennsylvania involving impersonation at the polls on election day.
If We Don’t Feel Like Giving it to You . . .
Despite officials’ claims that it will be easy for voters lacking identification to obtain it, the process for obtaining a state ID card in Pennsylvania is onerous. Would-be voters need to produce their birth certificates, social security cards and two utility bills or other mail that serves as proof of address, then brave long lines at Department of Motor Vehicle facilities with waits that can stretch on for hours, then deal with often surly and misinformed employees who, in some cases, have already been found to be ignorant of the new law and the requirement that they provide ID cards free of charge.
“We’ve had so many complaints that the DMV has created all these reasons why they can’t give it to you free,” says Walczak. “If it hasn’t been expired more than a year. Lost your old one, can’t get it. Any outstanding fines or [record of unpaid] child support, you can’t get it. If we don’t feel like giving it to you you can’t get it.”
Consequently, people who want to vote end up paying for the ID. “That makes it equivalent to a poll tax, which has been held unconstitutional,” the attorney says.
Furthermore, while the ID cards are supposedly free in theory if not in practice, it still costs money to get a birth certificate printed for citizens who have lost theirs, or never owned one to begin with. Women who have changed their names also have to pay for supplementary documentation such as a marriage license to prove they are the same person listed on their birth certificate.
Laws Spreading Nationwide
Pennsylvania has plenty of company with its ID law, as similar models spread across the country as part of a push by the conservative advocacy organization American Legislative Exchange Council to enact anti-consumer laws in states nationwide. Sixteen states in total have passed legislation requiring photo identification to vote, and another sixteen require ID, but with no photo requirement (not all the states that passed legislation have implemented the laws yet). The Department of Justice is currently challenging the laws in Texas and South Carolina, which are supposed to clear all changes to election laws with the federal government as a safeguard after the states spent decades going out of their way to keep African American citizens from voting.
The U.S. Supreme Court won’t be any help — the court in 2008 upheld an Indiana law requiring photo ID. However, the ACLU thinks they can make a stronger case in Pennsylvania. “We’re relying on Pennsylvania constitutional law which has much more explicit protections for voters than the U.S. Constitution,” Walczak says. Furthermore, unlike the challenge in Indiana, the ACLU is bringing real plaintiffs who say they won’t be able to cast a ballot under the new law. “These folks don’t have ID, tried and can’t get ID,” says Walczak. “They won’t be able to vote.”
The question at hand is this: Is the right to vote something that should be guaranteed to all Americans, or is it okay to arbitrarily exclude tens of thousands of people because they don’t have the money or ability to acquire the proper documentation?
“We’re not talking about a luxury that people might want to do,” Walczak says. “This is why we fought the American Revolution.”
Do you think citizens should lose their right to vote if they don’t have ID cards? Share your opinion by leaving a comment below.