Pennsylvania Supreme Court hears arguments on voter ID law

One of several controversial “voter ID” laws is on trial in the state where American democracy was born.  
The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, which sits in Philadelphia, is deciding an appeal of the state's new law, which requires citizens to show a government-issued, college or long-term care facility photo ID -- one that includes an expiration date -- as proof of identity before they can cast a ballot in November.

Supporters say the law will prevent voter fraud and ensure the integrity and credibility of the election process. Opponents charge it will lead to voter suppression and lower the participation of minorities, the elderly and the poor.

Those arguments got a full airing in court Thursday.

Branding voter ID "a serious threat," David Gresch, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the court that between now and Nov. 6th, "there's too little time, there are too many people affected, and there is no place in the statute which guarantees that qualified electors can get the ID they need to vote."

"There's no problem requiring voter ID to vote. The vice is in requiring ID that people don't have and have a hard time getting."

But John Knorr, the Pennsylvania Chief deputy attorney general supporting the law, said that is not so. He countered by saying, "The burden, it seems to me, is quite minimal."

He told the court, "Most people can get photo ID's quite easily," noting the state's efforts to make them widely available.

"This idea that ... on Election Day, we are going to have one million and a half voters without ID's is a fantasy. If you look at the whole population of Pennsylvania, the whole adult population, we don't have that many people without driver’s licenses, let alone registered voters."

The Pennsylvania Department of State says out of 8.2 million voters, about 759,000 were estimated to not have the appropriate identification. As of Monday, 7,833 people have received their free ID's from the state.

In his August ruling, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Judge Robert Simpson, Jr. ruled that the law will not disenfranchise voters.

He wrote, "Photo ID ... is a reasonable, non-discriminatory, non-severe burden when viewed in the broader context of the widespread use of Photo ID in daily life ... to vote in person, everyone must present a photo ID that can be obtained for free. It does not expressly disenfranchise or burden any qualified elector or group of electors. The statute simply gives poll workers another tool to verify that the person voting is who they claim to be."

State elections officials note that anyone who does not have a valid driver's license or other form of identification can obtain a free voter card at one of 71 offices across the state. And if people can't travel to the office, the state will deliver what is known as an alternate ballot to their house.

Voters who lack ID when they show up at the polls in November can cast a provisional ballot, but then have six days to provide the required documentation.

"No one will be denied the right to vote under the Pennsylvania Voter ID law," insists Deputy Secretary of State Shannon Royer. He told Fox News, "There is no evidence, whatsoever, that voter ID laws, which have been enacted in many other states, lead to suppression."

Royer says the law "can be used to detect and deter voter fraud, particularly voter impersonation fraud. So this kind of law is exactly what is needed to make sure that we can monitor if this is happening, and deter it from happening in the first place."

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous disputed the claims at a rally before the hearing.

"This year, in this country, the greatest democracy on earth, we have seen more states pass more laws, pushing more voters out of the ballot box than we have seen in the past 100 years," he said.

A crowd of about 100 people, some sporting shirts and signs from such groups as and the public employee union SEIU gathered to protest the law across the street from City Hall, where the court session was held.

State Rep. Babette Josephs, a veteran Democrat from Philadelphia, said she strongly opposes the law. "The Republicans did this to beat Obama, and to make sure that they remain in the majority in state government," she said, predicting that if the law stands, the result will be chaos on Election Day.

If the law is upheld on appeal, Josephs predicts problems.

"I think half of them don't even know that they are required to have some kind of extra ID, and the other half of them think that what they have in their house is okay. So they are going to show up on Election Day, when everybody votes, because it is the general election for the president, and it is going to be a terrible mess," she said.

But Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth Royer foresees "no problems on Election Day, unless someone is out to create mischief," such as those "who willingly disobey this law ... or voters who claim they don't want to show their ID's for voting purposes.”

Royer said he is optimistic that the state Supreme Court will uphold the law. Jealous, on the other side, said he is “cautiously optimistic” the court will strike it down.

The appeal was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and several other groups. The ACLU’s lead plaintiff, 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite, publicly denounced the law. In July, she was quoted in The New York Times as saying, "They're trying to stop black people from voting so Obama will not be re-elected."

But only days after Judge Simpson's ruling that upheld the law in August, Applewhite, accompanied by a reporter, went into a state office and received her own voter ID card to vote, without any problem.

“They gave one to Viviette Applewhite, how about the other 750,000 people who probably don’t have the right kind of ID?” questioned Josephs.

A ruling is expected before the election.

If you suspect problems at the polls or voter fraud where you live, contact us:

Meredith Orban contributed to this report.