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Thursday, July 26, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 p.m.
Great-grandmother sues over Pennsylvania voter law
By Seattle Times news services
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The debate over a Pennsylvania great-grandmother's right to vote will put the state's new voter-identification law to the test as advocacy groups ask a judge to bar legislation they say will suppress voting by minorities.
Viviette Applewhite, 93, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in May by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Applewhite, who once marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., won't be able to vote in November under the new law, which requires a photo ID to obtain a ballot.
A weeklong hearing in the case, which includes nine other Pennsylvania voters, began Wednesday before Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson in Harrisburg. The ACLU is asking Simpson to block the law pending a final court decision.
Pennsylvania officials had argued that the law would help stem voter fraud while later saying they weren't aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud in the state.
"Given that the incidents of real fraud to be avoided by the law are negligible, the only fair inference is that the real purpose of the photo ID law is not ensuring the integrity of the electoral process but ensuring political advantage," the ACLU said in court papers.
Pennsylvania, one of nine states that passed strict laws requiring a photo ID to vote, has become a test case in the voter eligibility debate after a tally by the state suggested as much as 9 percent of the state's electorate may be denied a chance to cast a ballot in the presidential election.
The Pennsylvania law requires a state driver's license or an acceptable alternative, such as a military ID, to cast a ballot. The new requirement may disqualify 186,830 potential voters in Philadelphia, almost 25 percent the adult residents of the state's largest city, according to the state's estimates.
The law was passed earlier this year by the Republican-controlled state Legislature without a single "yes" vote from a Democratic lawmaker and signed in March by GOP Gov. Tom Corbett.
Applewhite, who worked as a welder during World War II, has never driven a car and can't obtain documents needed to comply with the law, lawyers for the ACLU said. Applewhite, who has voted in almost every election in the past 50 years, tried to order a birth certificate from Pennsylvania's Division of Vital Records at least three times after her purse and other important documents were stolen, according to court filings. She never received one.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has compared restrictive voter ID laws to "poll taxes" used years ago in the South to discourage black voters.
The Justice Department has blocked voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, states that need permission from the government under Section 5 of the voting act before changing election procedures because of their history of voting rights violations. A panel of three federal judges heard the Texas case in Washington this month. A hearing in South Carolina's case is scheduled for next month.
Wisconsin's voter ID law was declared unconstitutional by a state court judge in March. The state is appealing the decision. Florida officials told a federal appeals court that they may seek to reverse a lower-court order blocking the enforcement of the state's restrictions on voter-registration groups.
Voter ID laws could be the difference between victory and defeat in November, said Daniel Tokaji, who teaches at Ohio State University's law school in Columbus and helps direct its election-law center.
"If you've got a very close vote in a particular state, an ID law could make the difference by disproportionately burdening certain groups of voters," Tokaji said.
President Obama won Pennsylvania with 55 percent of the vote in 2008, winning by 620,478 votes, fewer than the number who may be barred from the polls on Nov. 6.
The state House Republican floor leader told a state party meeting in June that it would allow GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania in the fall.
Turnout for the presidential election in Philadelphia will be high, as will the stakes and emotions, lawyers for the city said in papers filed in the ACLU's case. Obama won 83 percent of the city's vote in 2008.
Compiled from Bloomberg News, The Associated Press and The Washington Post
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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