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Lawsuit targets Pennsylvania's fortified voter law

| Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 3:01 p.m.

HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania's seven-week-old voter identification law was challenged in court on Tuesday by 10 registered voters, including some who say they do not have photo ID and cannot get the kind now required because their birth states do not have their birth certificate on file.

The lawsuit, filed in the state's Commonwealth Court, was threatened even before Pennsylvania joined a growing crowd of Republican-controlled states passing such laws.

It also warns of widespread disenfranchisement becoming evident on Election Day, when voters who don't know about the law or didn't read its fine print realize too late that they don't have valid ID and don't have time to get one.

In addition, the lawsuit challenges the notion advanced by the law's supporters that the photo ID requirement is necessary to combat voter fraud and that the law's provisions are broad enough to ensure that everyone who needs a photo ID to vote will be able to get one.

"When you take the phantom claims of fraud raised by the commonwealth and you compare them to the petitioners who are filing this lawsuit today, these are individuals who put lie to the commonwealth's claims that nobody will be affected by this new law," said Witold J. Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This is not abstract or hypothetical situations. ... These folks cannot get the kind of ID that is required by the law."

The law violates the state constitution's "free and equal" elections clause and another clause that establishes qualifications to vote in Pennsylvania, said the lawsuit, which also seeks an injunction that halts the enforcement of the law.

In addition to the ACLU, lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, the Washington-based Advancement Project and law firm Arnold & Porter LLP are representing the plaintiffs. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, League of Women Voters and Homeless Advocacy Project joined the lawsuit.

Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, signed the bill March 14 -- one of the nation's toughest voter ID laws -- after it passed the GOP-controlled state Legislature over the objections of Democrats, the AARP, the NAACP, labor unions and good-government groups.

Corbett administration officials say they believe the law will withstand a court challenge. The nine-member Commonwealth Court is composed of seven Republicans and two Democrats.

Opponents of the law call it a throwback to the now-unconstitutional poll taxes and literacy tests designed to discriminate against poor and minority voters and a thinly veiled attempt to defeat President Obama in the Nov. 6 election, when Pennsylvania, historically a swing state, is again expected to be a high-profile battleground.

Republicans, who for years have harbored suspicions of widespread voter fraud in the Democratic bastion of Philadelphia, say the law is a common-sense measure to ensure the integrity of the balloting and that photo IDs are regularly used in day-to-day activity.

Department of State spokesman Ron Ruman insisted yesterday that the prior voter ID law -- which required identification from a person voting for the first time in a given precinct, but not necessarily a photo ID -- did not provide a reliable way to ensure a voter's identity or catch voter fraud.

"You can't prosecute something that you can't detect," Ruman said.

But, the lawsuit said, it will result in a large-scale disenfranchisement that will cast doubt on the integrity of Pennsylvania's election results.

"With no evidence of any meaningful in-person voter fraud, the photo ID law is a cure in search of a nonexistent disease," the lawsuit said. "But the supposed cure itself threatens to kill the patient -- namely, the integrity of elections in Pennsylvania."

The Department of State suggests that about 90,000 people eligible to vote, or about 1 percent, do not have a valid state ID, but Walczak said the number is likely far greater.

The plaintiffs include three women, Wilola Shinholster Lee, Gloria Cuttino and Dorothy Barkdale, who were born in southern states and who have been told by their birth states that there is no record of their birth, the lawsuit said, suggesting that it is impossible for them to get a valid state photo ID.

Another plaintiff, Grover Freeland, served in the Army, but his veteran's ID card isn't valid under Pennsylvania's voter ID law, and New York has denied his request for a birth certificate, the suit said.

Asked about them, Ruman declined to discuss their cases, saying, "that's for the lawyers to handle." But, he insisted that the state is continuing to work to get an ID to everyone who wants one.

"For unique circumstances, we will deal with them as best we can," Ruman said.

The lawsuit also documented the difficulty that another plaintiff, Joyce Block, went through. After being rejected once, Block needed the intervention of a state senator to get a state ID, because the only documentation of the change from her birth name to her married name on her voter registration is a marriage certificate in Hebrew.

The suit also documented the difficulty that Henrietta Kay Dickerson had in getting a free photo ID from the state, as the law promised. She said she ended up being required to pay $13.50 for an ID.

"Since Ms. Dickerson does not need the ID for any reason but to vote, the fee is tantamount to a poll tax," the lawsuit said.

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