By Myra Saturen
September 20, 2012
Three-quarters of a million Pennsylvanians are at risk of being unable to vote in the November 2012 election as a result of the state's voter ID law, signed this summer by Governor Tom Corbett (R), said Attorney Joe Welsh from the American Civil Liberties Union.
He and State Representative Robert Freeman (D) discussed Pennsylvania's voter ID law on September 20 at Northampton Community College's (NCC) College Center. George H. Treisner, chairman of the Northampton County Election Commission also made some brief remarks. The event was held in conjunction with Constitution Day, traditionally celebrated on Sept. 17 and was intended to inform students about the law and how they can obtain acceptable ID.
According to the voter ID law, Pennsylvania voters must show an acceptable form of photo ID with a current expiration date and a name that substantially conforms to that on the registration rolls in order to vote in person, even if they have voted at the same polling place for years.
Challenges to the law are being mounted as unconstitutional by the state's American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other organizations, who are arguing for a preliminary injunction on the grounds that the law is too uncertain and that there is not enough information in place for the law to be used under the Pennsylvania Constitution. In August, Commonwealth Court Judge Robert declined the request for the preliminary injunction, saying the plaintiffs did not show that "disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable." The Pennsylvania Supreme Court then heard the case, bouncing it back to Judge Simpson by a vote of 4 to 2. There the challenge resides until Simpson rules on it by October 2.
"The law affects a fundamental Constitutional right, that to vote," Welsh said. "It affects the most vulnerable segment of our society--the elderly, the disabled, the financially disadvantaged." He explained that many people in these groups lack such documentation as current drivers' licenses or passports. Women who took their husbands' names upon marriage do not, for example, have birth certificates with their married names on them. To acquire voter IDs is cumbersome and sometimes costly, Welsh said. To counter the claim that voters can easily obtain a photo ID from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENN-DOT), he pointed out that 13 counties do not have a PENN-DOT office and some are open very limited hours. And, in order to obtain a PENN-DOT ID, voters must first obtain a birth certificate from overburdened records offices in addition to presenting three additional forms of ID.
Why was such a difficult voter ID law enacted? "It was not enacted to fix any problem, since there has been no evidence of voter fraud anywhere in Pennsylvania," Welsh said. "This testimony was even admitted [by its proponents] in litigation. The biggest fraud is the notion that there is any need whatsoever for this law."
The laws flies in the face, Welsh said, of the trajectory of American history. "It is, frankly, Un-American," he said. He indicated the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, post-Civil War measures that freed the slaves, protected the rights of the emancipated and prohibited the national and state governments from refusing citizens the right to vote because of their race, color, or because they were a slave at one time. Subsequent Constitutional amendments broadened voting rights to include the formerly disenfranchised--women and 18-21-year-olds. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, eliminating the poll tax and arbitrary local rules that prevented African Americans from voting in many states.
Holding up a photograph of a serious-looking, attractive young woman, Welsh identified her as Viola Liuzzo, a Pennsylvania-born mother of five who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1965, for marching in Selma, Alabama, for equal voting rights. "We are fighting Viola's battle," he said.
"The voter ID law is an effort to reverse history, to turn back the clock," he said. "There is one purpose of the voter ID law--the suppression of votes."
Congressman Freeman called the voter ID law an unnecessary barrier to the franchise, "a solution in search of a problem," since voter fraud is a non-issue in Pennsylvania. He said that, instead, it is a "base motive to get political advantage by trampling on other people's rights. It is an affront to our democracy and an assault on a fundamental right."
Freeman answered the assertion having to show an ID to purchase alcohol or buy cigars is comparable to having to show a photo ID to vote. He countered that the purchases are commercial transactions, whereas voting is a fundamental Constitutional right.
Noting that 18% of senior Pennsylvanians lack a photo ID, he presented the actual case of an 86-year-old World War II veteran who tried to vote in the March primary election in Ohio, a state with a photo voter ID law. Albeit a 40-year record of voting at the same polling place, the man, who no longer drives, was turned away after he produced an old driver's license.
"The motive of the Republican state legislature and the governor's office is to change the rules of the game as a way to get an edge in the election," Freeman said.
Treisner, who in addition to being a Northampton County Commissioner, is also the chairman of the Alliance for Aging, called the law cruel and unjustified. He said that it typically affects people who tend to vote Democratic.
Since the outcome of the voter ID issue is unresolved at this time, the speakers urged voters to act as if it were. They advised people to
•make sure they have acceptable ID;
•contact friends, relatives, and acquaintances to urge them to gather ID;
•Inform leaders and fellow members of organizations.
•Send letters to local media
NCC students can obtain a sticker with a valid expiration date for their student IDs at College Center, Room 200.
"The right to vote is a precious one," Freeman said. "Other countries don't even have elections or hold sham ones."
For more information on acceptable IDs and how to register to vote, click here.
To review Northampton Community College's guidelines for public comments, click here