State laws requiring identification cards for voters have raised big issues that will carry into fall election season, as three key rulings are expected at the same time the presidential election heats up.
And in one case that has Supreme Court ramifications, it might be a great-great-grandmother's testimony that could settle the voter ID issue in a key swing state.
Viviette Applewhite, 93, is the lead plaintiff in the ACLU's lawsuit in Pennsylvania, in a case that could have long-term implications for stricter voter ID laws.
Currently, there are pitched battles in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Texas over photo IDs as a requirement to vote.
The issue will get a lot of attention as state court rulings are issued later this summer in Minnesota and Pennsylvania. The Texas case was heard by the District of Columbia federal appeals court and a ruling there is also expected by Labor Day.
“This November, restrictive voter ID states will provide 127 electoral votes—nearly half of the 270 needed to win the presidency,” The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York Center for Law said in a report issued on July 18. “Therefore, the ability of eligible citizens without photo ID to obtain one could have a major influence on the outcome of the 2012 election."
The Brennan Center says as many as 500,000 voters could be affected at the polls, in just 10 states this November. It says 10 percent of voters, in those states, didn’t have government-issued photo IDs required by newer voter ID laws, including 25 percent of African-Americans and 18 percent of Americans over 65.
Pennsylvania is one of four states that falls into the category of “strict” photo identification requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Georgia, Tennessee and Kansas also have narrow laws on polling IDs requiring a state-approved photo.
Five other states require or request photo IDs at the polls: Florida, Michigan, Louisiana, South Dakota and Idaho.
Ohio, Virginia and Arizona fall into the category of “strict” non-photo ID states, where a bank statement or utility bill must be presented, in place of a government-issued photo ID.
Two arguments about voter ID cards
Law supporters believe the voter ID requirements will prevent fraud at the polls. Opponents say the voter ID laws are unconstitutional because they are a version of the “poll tax” outlawed by the 24th amendment.
One argument over the voter ID issue is about “free” ID cards offered by states to voters who don't have a driver's license or a government-issued ID card.
Supporters of the voter ID laws say people seeking ID cards need to supply the kind of same proof they would need for other basic social functions, like attending a school or getting a job. They also say states offer free alternative ID cards, and voters have plenty of time to make arrangements to get the cards.
Opponents says states with voter ID laws require paid copies of birth certificates to obtain a “free” card, which is enough to keep lower-income voters away from the polls.
Another argument is over accessibility.
The Brennan Center says long travel distances to approved ID offices are barriers on many levels to people of color, senior citizens, and the disabled. It estimates 13 percent of voters in 10 “strict voter ID” states don’t have access to a motor vehicle and live more than 10 miles from an office that offers IDs.
The court case in Texas has been contentious, since its proposed voter ID laws are strict, and they must be approved by the federal government because the state is on a review list as part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
For example, Texas won’t accept student IDs as proof at the polls, but it will accept gun permits.
Pennsylvania as a Supreme Court test case
Pennsylvania is a big test case for voter ID laws. It requires photo ID cards issued by the Commonwealth and it also accepts student IDs from accredited colleges.
But if a voter wants a free voter ID card, the state requires four documents submitted in person at a Department of Transportation office. The process gets more complicated for voters without a certified birth certificate. Voters don’t have to buy a birth certificate copy, but they have to provide the same information on a form, which is then investigated by the state within 10 days.
It is the problem of getting a timely birth certificate in Pennsylvania that is at the center of Viviette Applewhite's case.
A state court will hear arguments from the administration of Governor Tom Corbett and the American Civil Liberties Union on July 25 in the Applewhite case.
The ACLU says Applewhite has tried three times to buy a copy of her birth certificate from the state. It never arrived before she joined the lawsuit in the case, even though Applewhite paid for the documents.
The Pennsylvania trial should last a week, and the 93-year-old Applewhite will be at the heart of the testimony, along with other plaintiffs.
The Pennsylvania case will be tracked by Supreme Court watchers, since the state is seeking a higher level of proof from voters than was required by Indiana when it passed its voter ID law.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Indiana law in 2008, saying it didn’t require burdensome acts from voters.
The Pennsylvania case also got national attention in June, when a state GOP leader said voter ID restrictions would help Mitt Romney win the state.
“Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. (Mitt) Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: Done,“ he said at a party meeting.
Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for Turzai, clarified the statement.
“Rep. Turzai was speaking at a partisan, political event. He was simply referencing, for the first time in a long while, the Republican Presidential candidate will be on a more even keel thanks to voter ID… Anyone looking further into it has their own agenda," he said.
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