Rocking the Vote
ABOVE PHOTO: Sen. Williams speaks at podium at Tuesday’s rally in Harrisburg.
(Photo: Denise Clay)
Commonwealth Court began hearing arguments for and against Pennsylvania's Voter ID law on Wednesday. But on Tuesday, buses filled with citizens came to make their voices heard in Harrisburg and had a front row seat for a possible Constitutional crisis
By Denise Clay
On Wednesday morning, the next battle in the fight over Pennsylvania's Voter ID law began in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson began hearing arguments against the law requiring voters to bring a photo ID into the polls with them beginning this November. The law was passed this Spring and a "dress rehearsal" was held during the Pennsylvania Primaries in May. The Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, the Pennsylvania NAACP, and a host of groups filed suit soon afterward.
While the state is arguing that the law is necessary because it would ensure the integrity of the vote, opponents say that the only purpose for the law is to disenfranchise the very voters who came out to elect President Barack Obama four years ago and put Pennsylvania in the "win" column for Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney in the November elections.
The star witness on Wednesday was the woman who is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, 92-year-old Vivian Applewhite. Applewhite decided to sue to get the law overturned after seeing a sign regarding the birth certificates needed to get ID, she said in an interview with ThompsonMediaman Communications following her testimony.
There was only one problem: getting her birth certificate was going be difficult. That's because she didn't have one. Because she was so proud of it that she carried it with her in her purse, it was lost when her purse was stolen. Since she was born in Virginia, getting another one would prove difficult.
And as an elderly African American born in the South, Applewhite knew that she wouldn't be alone in her birth certificate issue.
"There's a whole lot of [people unable to access their birth certificates]," she said. "A whole gang of them, believe me when I tell you; A whole bunch of them. And it's going to cripple a whole lot of people in the Black race because they don't have it."
And as someone who believes that the right to vote has empowered her and allowed her to have input in American life, Applewhite had some harsh words for the law and the impact she believes it will have on potential voters.
PHOTO: State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams confronts a Capitol Policeman who is barring him from bringing a group of Voter ID protestors in to the Senate Caucus Room for Secretary of State Carol Aichle's press conference. The press conference was held shortly after a rally at the State Capital on Tuesday against the new law.
(Photo: Denise Clay)
"I think [the Voter ID law] stinks if I must say the word," she said. "I think it's terrible. I think it's a terrible to make people not be able to vote because they don't have a piece of paper that says ID."
As someone who has been described as The Rosa Parks of Voting, it made sense that Applewhite said she would take the lawsuit as far as she could if anti-Voter ID advocates don't prevail in Commonwealth Court.
Like Parks, she's sitting down, so that others can stand up.
"I'm fighting for everyone, not just myself," Applewhite said. "I will take this all the way because I don't think it's fair."
That sentiment was a popular one among the crowd that gathered for a rally on the State Capital steps on Tuesday, the day before opening arguments in the lawsuit began.
Busloads of union leaders, ministers, voting rights advocates, members of African American sororities and fraternities and others descended on the Capital to not only make the rest of the state aware of what was going to take place in Commonwealth Court the next day, but also to show their displeasure with the law itself.
According to the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, there have been no cases of voter fraud prosecuted in Pennsylvania and while a report issued by Philadelphia Commissioner Al Schmidt detailed some voting issues, those issues wouldn't have been solved by the Voter ID law, opponents say.
Many opponents have described the nationwide push for Voter ID laws on the part of some Republican governors a solution in search of a problem. The problem it's trying to solve is the problem of the coalition of voters that made Barack Obama President of the United States, according to Hilary Shelton, the NAACP's senior vice president for advocacy.
"We have watched throughout the country these anti-democratic, voter suppression laws being put in place in a very, how shall I put it, innocuous way; things like photo IDs." Shelton said. "What we recognize as we dig a little deeper is that as innocuous as a photo ID sounds, state-issued or government issued photo IDs require that you spend money; to have to go through an additional process in order to be able to vote, which should have been outlawed with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It's a poll tax."
Pennsylvania NAACP President J. Wyatt Mondesire minced even fewer words.
"Voter ID is a lie," he said. "It's a lie told by liars. And I want you to hear me say this...Tom Corbett is a liar!"
Much of that sentiment is a direct result of remarks made by State Rep. Mike Turzai to the Pennsylvania Republican Convention earlier this summer. Rep. Turzai told the group that the Voter ID law would help Romney win Pennsylvania.
PHOTO: Rallies Against the voter ID law sprung up all over, including this one last week at Center in the Park, hosted by Sen. LeAnna Washington on July 29. Pictured Sen. Washington with Sen. Shirley Kitchen hold up an example to the audience of the type of ID they will need to show at the polls, as well as speaking of other criteria needed to vote this November.
(Photo by Bill Z. Foster)
Horror stories similar to Applewhite's were also heard during the rally. State Rep. Rosita Youngblood told the story of a woman who had been to PennDOT five times in an attempt to get an ID and had been turned away due to slight inconsistencies in her paperwork. A representative of the League of Women Voters said that women who had changed their names due to marriage had to not only produce a birth certificate, but also a marriage license to secure ID.
Because of this and other problems that are springing up as this law is being implemented, State Sen. Daylin Leach has introduced a measure to repeal it.
"This law spits in the face of all of those who fought for Civil Rights in this country," he said. "African Americans, women and the elderly will be the most impacted by this. It should be repealed."
But repeal wasn't even discussed in a press conference held by Secretary of State Carol Aichle shortly after the rally in the Senate Caucus room. During the press conference, Secretary Aichle reaffirmed her support for the law and believed that it would withstand the court challenge.
When asked by reporters why the current safeguards against voter impersonation, safeguards that include having your signature on file on the voting book, were no longer enough for Pennsylvania, she cited her consternation at the Presidential voting fiasco that was Florida in 2000 as a reason. She also said that she wanted to make sure that elections were fair by making sure that the person voting is the one that's supposed to be.
"We just want to make sure that you are who you say you are when you go to the polls," she said. "We encourage everyone to get ID because if it's a close election we'll know who has cast a provisional ballot. Everyone, including elected officials, should be encouraging people to get ID."
Aichle also said that she hoped that the Voter ID law would increase voter turnout because, as she put it, a similar bill did so in Georgia.
But according to Who Can Vote, the Carnegie-Knight Foundation's investigative reporting project on voting, the increase in voter turnout in Georgia had nothing to do with the state's ID law and everything to do with interest in the election itself.
Reporters peppered Secretary Achiele with questions about the actual number of voters without ID, which she said was 785,000 statewide (186,000 in Philadelphia) and why this voter ID law was necessary since no voter fraud charge had ever been prosecuted in the Commonwealth.
But it was hard to hear her responses at times because of the large crowd of rally attendees who were denied entrance into the Senate Caucus Chambers by Capital Police.
Chanting "Let us in!" and singing verses of "We Shall Overcome", a group of about 50 people stood outside the chamber door. Sens. Anthony Hardy Williams and Vincent Hughes and Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown had invited the group to the Caucus Room to hear the press conference, but Capital Police said that while the elected officials could attend, the public could not.
When Secretary Aichle was asked what she would tell the assembled masses outside who believe that this law's sole purpose is to decrease turnout among the poor, elderly and minority groups, her response was a suggestion that she hoped the assembled media would pass on.
"I hope that they'll listen to what we're saying and that they'll take this energy and help people get IDs," she said.
At a press conference following Secretary Aichle's, Sen. Williams promised legal action instead.
"This is the Senate chamber," he said. "The Senate is a separate branch of the government. We're allowed to bring guests here. Now allowing us to do so is a violation. This is going to court."
But while many in the crowd are hoping that Commonwealth Court strikes the law down, organizations like the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition and others are taking Secretary Aichle's advice and taking to the streets to get voters and the ID they need to participate connected.
"When we're doing voter registration, we're making them aware that this law is in place," said Renee Leverett, a community organizer from Philadelphia. "I wouldn't say that it's harder for us to register people to vote, but it's more urgent. It's more important that people know what's going on."
The hearings are expected to continue in Commonwealth Court throughout the week. No decision is expected before mid-August.
Applewhite hopes the court will rule in favor of people like her: people who want to exercise their franchise without being stopped at the door by an ID card.
"I got in this for one thing, to be able to vote," she said. "That's all I want to do..."
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