Pennsylvania's voter ID law will be back in state court Monday after more than a year of legal limbo. A state judge will decide whether the 2012 law — which hasn't been enforced — violates the state's constitution.
The measure requires voters to show a particular state-issued photo ID before casting ballots. Last week, civil rights advocates like the NAACP's John Jordan railed against the requirement.
"It's a ploy to take votes away from people who deserve them — veterans, seniors, students, people with disabilities, people of color and hard-working folk," Jordan said.
It's the same disagreement that has caused conservative lawmakers and voting rights activists to lock picket signs at state capitols across the country. Supporters say photo ID is a common-sense requirement that
keeps people from impersonating someone else and casting a fraudulent ballot.
Opponents say it's an attempt to disenfranchise minorities and Democratic-leaning groups, who are less likely to have photo identification.
A legal challenge to Pennsylvania's law was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union with 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite as the lead plaintiff. She's a longtime voter, born in Philadelphia, who wouldn't be able to get the ID she would need under new rules because she doesn't have a birth certificate or other key identifying documents, such as a non-driving license.
"I think it's just terrible," Applewhite says in an ACLU video, "because there's so many people that don't have ID and they're not going to be able to vote. I think that's taking their privilege away from them and I don't think it's right."
In court, lawyers for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have acknowledged they couldn't point to any instance of voter fraud.
The trial could give the law some sticking power or deliver a death blow. The judge must rule on the constitutionality of voter ID under state law and his ruling is expected to be appealed to the state's Supreme Court.
Pennsylvania officials have worked to defuse the issue. Last summer, just before the first court hearing on the law, state officials created a new special voting ID card that would be easier for some to obtain than a driver's license.
Applewhite, the lead plaintiff, finally did get an ID, but ACLU lawyer Vic Walczak points out she has an ID because state clerks made an exception for her. She still doesn't have the documents she would need under the law to get a photo ID to vote.
"There are still hundreds of thousands of people like that," Walczak said,
"And the Commonwealth needs to take steps to make sure that all of them have the ID, not just people who become famous through a lawsuit or participate in a lawsuit."
The actual number of eligible voters without IDs is elusive — and highly disputed. Commonwealth lawyers defending voter ID argue the figure is immaterial. According to a document obtained from the Office of the Attorney General, the Commonwealth's position is that it has done enough to make it possible for people to get voter IDs.
But implementation matters. "It's one thing to say that you'll offer people free ID," said Rick Hasen, a professor specializing in election law at University of California, Irvine School of Law. "It's another thing to actually have such a program in place. And the reason that the law was put on hold in the last election was that the state couldn't demonstrate it could actually get IDs into the hands of the people who wanted them for the last election."
If the law is upheld, it could have national impact. Hasen says the requirement might barely change election outcomes, but Pennsylvania could be a swing state in presidential elections. And, Hasen says, if the law passes court muster,
other Republican legislatures might see it as a reason to implement their own ID laws or make any laws on the books stricter.