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Photo ID Law on Trial in Pennsylvania: What’s at Stake for Our Democracy

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July 15, 2013

Margaret Pennington, a 90-year-old Chester County resident and lifelong voter, votes by going to her polling place two blocks away. She also no longer drives and depends on her daughter to take her around. She lives about 25 miles away from the nearest PennDOT office, Pennsylvania’s equivalent of a DMV office. For Pennington to obtain a photo ID to vote, her daughter would have to close her small retail business and lose a day’s work.

Pennington is just one of the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who will not be able to vote if the state’s photo ID law remains in place. Many are elderly, some have disabilities, some are low-income; all take seriously their responsibility to vote on Election Day.

Today the ACLU is back in court to ask that the photo ID law be blocked permanently, as it is an unnecessary and unjustifiable burden on the fundamental right to vote guaranteed under the Pennsylvania State Constitution. We will show that not only does the state photo ID law fall far short of the constitutional promise that elections be “free and equal,” but it also fails to pass the common sense test.

While Pennsylvania claims to have educated the public on the photo ID law since its passage some 16 months ago, our expert analysis revealed that the state’s campaign delivered a confusing message that was incorrect on the law and failed to explain how eligible voters can obtain a free ID. The numbers further underscore the campaign’s failure. Even though hundreds of thousands of voters lack necessary ID, only about 17,000 IDs have been issued for voting purposes to date. It’s no wonder: Obtaining a valid ID may be challenging for even those who know about the law. A voter must go to one of only 71 PennDOT offices in the entire state. Nine counties do not have any locations, eleven offices are only open only one day a week, and the state doesn’t provide or mobile vans issuing IDs for the homebound.

One would hope that there is a significant, critically important reason for imperiling a fundamental right. The state has repeatedly claimed that having a photo ID law will prevent fraud and also instill public confidence in the integrity of our election system. But the state already admitted that it has found no cases of someone attempting to impersonate another voter at the polls, including in the November 2012 elections. Further, the state produced no evidence that public confidence in Pennsylvania’s system was in jeopardy. Instead, the legislature’s actual motivations were revealed when Rep. Mike Turzai stated to members of his party, “Voter ID . . . is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Left unmentioned is the state of public confidence in the integrity of our democracy when such naked, partisan attempts to manipulate the system are revealed. And how our trust further erodes when we hear stories like those of our witnesses – of eligible, committed voters who will no longer be able to exercise their right to vote.

Putting the important constitutional question aside, Pennsylvania’s experience also reveals how our public institutions – from the legislature, to the Department of Transportation, to the Department of State – have all failed our voters. Each institution decided to take the easy, politically expedient road instead of committing the resources and forethought necessary to ensure that we do not exclude eligible citizens from casting a valid ballot.

Proponents of punitive photo ID laws often like to cite the significant public support for such policies as evidence of their legitimacy. There is no denying that the vast majority of Americans have driver’s licenses. As such, it’s easy for us to ignore the very valid reasons why someone may not possess one among a severely limited list of government-issued IDs. It may be even easier to forget that the reasons for lacking a driver’s license are wholly unrelated to an individual’s qualification to vote. That’s why this particular voting restriction is so insidious. The burden of obtaining a valid photo ID under these restrictive laws falls on the most vulnerable and often least visible among us – including the elderly, low-income, racial minorities, and people with disabilities. Laws like Pennsylvania’s push our fellow citizens further into the margins by stripping them of their voices.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last month striking down a crucial provision of the federal Voting Rights Act, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas all announced that they will be implementing punitive photo ID laws. This is a pivotal moment in voting rights. Nothing less than the state of our democracy is at stake.

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