The Fight against Voter Suppression in Pennsylvania

During the Jim Crow Era, states erected all kinds of ridiculous and shameful barriers to prevent African Americans from voting.  They required African Americans to pass complicated literacy tests.  They forced black people to pay outrageous poll taxes.  In some states, in order to vote, black people had to know how many bubbles were on a bar of soap or how many jelly beans were in a jar. 

Unfortunately, after the overwhelming black voter turnout in 2008 and the election of the first black president, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and other states decided to turn back the clock by adopting and implementing draconian voter identification laws.  Such laws have a disproportioned impact on African Americans and other minorities.   According to the Brennan Center, approximately 25 percent of African Americans do not have the required government issued photo IDs compared to approximately 8 percent of the white population.

Moreover, the law essentially requires citizens to purchase photo IDs and/or birth certificates in order to vote. That is nothing but a modern day poll tax.  Even the so-called free Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ("PennDOT") IDs require one to pay for a birth certificate.  Such expenses are an undue burden on the poor and elderly.  In addition, PennDOT regularly rejects such applications to obtain the "free" PennDOT IDs.  Many people have difficulty obtaining the PennDOT ID cards.  And have made multiple, unsuccessful attempts to obtain PennDOT IDs.

The Pennsylvania voter ID law requires voters who appear in-person to vote to produce certain types of photo IDs, including U.S. government IDs, various Pennsylvania state IDs and student IDs.  The photo IDs must have an expiration date and not be expired, with few exceptions.  During yesterday's hearing, Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice McCaffery mentioned that he uses a government issued photo ID to enter the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  However, he cannot use that same ID to vote because it does not have an expiration date.

On July 25, 2012, the Commonwealth Court heard petitioners' motion for a preliminary injunction.  Through the motion, the petitioners sought to enjoin the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from enforcing the voter ID law.  On August 15, 2012, the court denied the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference's motion for a preliminary injunction. 

Yesterday, in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the appeal.  Our counsel David Gersch began his argument with a brief discussion about the significance of the setting.  The case was heard in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia is the birthplace of modern democracy.  The Founding Fathers wrote the United States Constitution in Philadelphia.  The right to vote is enshrined in the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania State Constitution.

After discussing that brief history, Mr. Gersch pointed out how Pennsylvania's voter ID law violates citizens' fundamental right to vote.  Mr. Gersch presented several compelling facts during arguments.  First, he stated that the Commonwealth essentially stipulated that there are no examples of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania. 

As an aside, in June 2012, Pennsylvania House leader Mike Turzai basically admitted that the voter ID law was enacted to help elect Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  He said, "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done." Clearly, the voter ID law was not passed to prevent the imaginary, non-existent problem of in-person voter fraud. Under the circumstances, it is not unreasonable for one to conclude that the law was enacted to suppress African American, Latino, elderly and student voters.  It is worth noting that Pennsylvania is a key swing state in presidential elections.

Second, Mr. Gersch argued that between 1% and 9% of registered voters in Pennsylvania do not have the necessary photo identification.  At the low end, we are talking about between 100,000 and 500,000 people.  He asserted that the Commonwealth plans to issue only several thousand photo IDs between now and Election Day. That will not ensure that all voters will have the necessary photo IDs to cast their vote.  Clearly, hundreds of thousands of people may be disenfranchised if the law is allowed to stand.  The harm to the public certainly outweighs any harm to the Commonwealth.  The appellants are merely seeking to maintain the past status quo.

Finally, since the right to vote is a fundamental right, Mr. Gersch argued that the Commonwealth's voter ID law is subject to strict scrutiny.  In order to be constitutional, the law must be narrowly tailored.  For the law to be upheld, the state must guarantee that all registered voters will be able to obtain photo IDs.  Currently, there is no such guarantee.  

Mr. Gersch discussed methods used by other states to ensure that all registered voters are able to vote.  For instance, the Georgia legislature passed a law giving all registered voters the right to vote by absentee ballot.  In Michigan, the legislature passed laws allowing voters to complete affidavits in lieu of presenting government issued IDs.

The NAACP is cautiously optimistic that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will reverse the Commonwealth Court's ruling and order the Commonwealth Court to enter a preliminary injunction.  We defeated the Texas voter ID law.  Hopefully, we will defeat the Pennsylvania voter ID law as well.

We marched, fought, bled and died for the right to vote.  All other rights flow from the right to vote.  We will not let Pennsylvania or any other state take away that precious right.