Trial Date Set for Court Challenge to PA Voter ID Law as State Offers Another Option on Burdensome Procedures
A day after the state announced that birth certificates would no longer be needed for many residents to gain a valid voter ID, a state court todav announced a trial date for the court suit filed to overturn the controversial voter ID law that mandates unprecedented photo ID requirements for voting in PA.
July 25 of this year was the date set in PA Commonwealth Court, a significant development in itself, according to the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of PA. Walczak said that presiding Judge Robert Simpson overruled the Commonwealth’s argument that a September date would be sufficient and scheduled an evidentiary hearing in the case, Applewhite v. Commonwealth of PA.
Walczak told Citizens’ Call that the complainants argued successfully that a September trial date would be too late to afford the PA Supreme Court an opportunity to review the decision by the court before the November 6 election, when the law takes full effect. The argument for the need for a hearing to present evidence of the impact of the law on the plaintiffs was also accepted by the judge. The Commonwealth contended that no hearing was necessary.
Meanwhile, in the second noteworthy easing of the bureaucratic rigamarole involved in securing a valid voting ID for those without a PA drivers license, the Department of State announced yesterday that PA-born residents lacking a birth certificate could arrange to check birth records to apply for a non-drivers license photo ID at Penn DoT license centers, rather than having to purchase a duplicate birth certificate for $10.
“At Governor Corbett’s direction, we continue working on quicker and easier ways for eligible voters to obtain photo IDs,” said Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, whose department oversees elections in PA. “Working in collaboration with Penn DoT and the Department of Health, we have developed an alternative, secure system for verifying the birth records of people born in PA to help them obtain a photo ID for voting,” she said.
The significance of the change likely goes beyond any cost savings. The time required for the records check, according to the department’s spokesperson, Ron Ruman, is 10 days, as opposed to a period of up to three months that securing an actual certificate could take. There is reportedly a major backlog of birth certificate requests since the voter ID law took effect in mid-March.
The change, however, will only affect PA-born residents in need of a voter-ID. According to census figures, slightly more than 25 percent of Pennsylvanians were born out of PA, although some proportion of them are ineligible to vote.
Another one of the multitude of threads of the voter ID story that surfaced yesterday is that the lead petitioner in the court case, Viviette Applewhite, recently received her birth certificate in the mail. That’s good news for the 93-year-old African-American great-great grandmother and resident of Philadelphia who marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She’s definitely one step closer to her voter ID, but she might not want to get too confident.
Remaining on her “to-do” list is dredging up a social security card, another prerequisite for the photo ID, which she lost at the same time she parted with her birth certificate. And then she’d better not forget two proofs of residency, such as a lease, utility bills or a mortgage document. If she leaves them home when she treks to Penn DoT, she’ll just have to come back again. Another not-so-small thing is providing proof of a name change. It seems that Applewhite took the wayward step of getting married some years back and – yes – even changing her name. (Her birth name is Brooks.) Usually, a marriage certificate is sufficient evidence, but the 93-year-old doesn’t have that document either.
In addition, Walczak recounts the story of a woman in Pittsburgh who was rejected by Penn DoT for the non-driver ID because her real name – “Robinson” – was misspelled by a clerk on her original birth certificate as “Robenson.” Rules are rules, after all. Walczak has to check back with her to find out whether or not the problem is resolved.
All of which is not to say that any easing of rigid procedures, such as the change allowing access to Penn DoT’s non-drivers ID if you had a PA license since 1990, without going through the obstacle course in store for Applewhite, should be discounted. Walczak sees these measures as “positive change.” “Any time you make it easier and cheaper for people, those are good things. But in terms of the right to vote, they don’t materially affect any of our plaintiffs, for instance. They don’t go that far.”
Finally, Walczak worries about the realities of making multiple trips to Penn DoT for the frail, elderly and disabled. Some people in rural areas of the state, he adds, face the burden of not even having license centers in their counties, which forces them on a journey of up to 75 to 100 miles – probably more than once. He says the ACLU has interviewed a number of people who have gone back and forth to Penn DoT as much as four times for reasons ranging from bringing the wrong documents to computer problems at the license center.
In addition to the ACLU, two voting rights and public interest groups, the Advancement Project and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), plus the Washington, D.C. law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP. are handling the litigation for the plaintiffs. Organizations which have joined the complainants in the case are the League of Women Voters of PA, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) PA State Conference, and the Homeless Assistance Project.