As the November presidential election approaches, birth certificates and tax returns are once again a source of contention across Pennsylvania.
This time, the fight is not the escalating political battle between incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but over the need for voters to prove their identity before casting their ballots under the new voter ID law.
The law requiring all residents to show a state-approved photo ID is being challenged in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court as a "poll tax," which blocks access to a citizen's constitutional right to cast a ballot.
Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said the lawsuit filed against the voter ID law is seeking a preliminary injunction to block the law from taking effect ahead of November's presidential election. In May, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele submitted a 47-page legal brief in response to the proposed injunction filed by 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite and nine others.
Applewhite, the American Civil Liberties Union and the others named in the lawsuit claim they were denied valid photo IDs or do not meet the requirements necessary to obtain one in order to vote in November.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell said in a "Face the Nation" interview Aug. 5 on CBS that the voter ID law posed a serious problem to Pennsylvania voters.
What will work
Voters will be required to show an acceptable photo ID on Election Day. All photo IDs must contain an expiration date that is current, unless noted otherwise. Acceptable IDs, according to votespa.com, include:
- Photo IDs issued by the federal government or the state (including the Department of State Voter ID card)
- Pennsylvania driver's license or non-driver's license photo ID
- Valid U.S. passport
- U.S. military ID (either with an expiration date or designation that the expiration date is indefinite)
- Employee photo ID issued by federal, state, county or municipal government
- Photo ID from an accredited Pennsylvania public or private institution of higher learning
- Photo ID issued by a Pennsylvania care facility, including long-term care facilities, assisted living residences or personal care homes
A registered voter who does not have one of these IDs, may be entitled to get one for free at a PennDOT Driver License Center. Call the Department of State Voter ID hot line at 877-VotesPA to see what supporting documentation you will need.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson heard the case in July and is expected to have a decision on granting an injunction to block the voter ID law, possibly as early as this week.
No ID, no vote
The voter ID law, known as Act 18, was signed by Gov. Tom Corbett on March 14. It requires all voters to provide some form of photo ID or a valid identification card approved by the Department of State before casting a ballot.
Opponents say that will disenfranchise voters, primarily minorities, the elderly and college students, while proponents argue most voters already are in possession of a valid ID and showing it has become commonplace in society.
According to Aichele's brief, each of the petitioners challenging the voter ID law in commonwealth court is already in possession of or has the necessary documents to obtain at least one form of identification made mandatory to vote under the law. (See the accompanying box on Page A1.)
About 91 percent of all registered Pennsylvania voters already possess some form of PennDOT-issued identification acceptable under the new law, according to the brief.
The Department of State initially claimed 99 percent of all registered voters were in possession of a valid photo ID, but the department has since issued a new estimate that 758,000 voters - about 9 percent of all of Pennsylvania's registered voters - do not have the proper identification.
The Justice Department announced an investigation into Pennsylvania's voter ID law in a July 23 letter addressed to Aichele's office. In the letter, Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez requested records to "evaluate Pennsylvania's compliance with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and other federal voting laws."
The legal battle
Pennsylvania Department of State Press Secretary Ron Ruman said the department, which is responsible for overseeing the election and implementing the new law in conjunction with PennDOT and other state agencies, will comply with the ruling expected to be handed down sometime this week.
For now, the department is busy marketing the law to inform people of the changes expected at polling places in November.
"It's really letting folks know what the requirements are and how to get an ID if they need one," Ruman said. "Unless the court overturns it, this is the law."
Those without a valid ID can get a Pennsylvania Department of State voter ID card, which is free of charge and valid for up to 10 years.
Available later this month, the card is for voting purposes only and to be used only for residents unable to provide the necessary documents for a PennDOT ID. Residents must still provide some basic information, including the last four digits of their Social Security number and two proofs of residency, Ruman said.
"I feel the public in general understands the reason for this law is to provide a common-sense, easy way to ID a voter at the polls, which we don't have right now," Ruman said. "A signature is not exactly accurate. ... This gives us a reliable way to verify the identity of each voter."
While the department has heard concerns about the measures the law implements, Ruman cited a Quinnipiac University poll released last month that showed 66 percent of respondents are in favor of the law, or roughly two out of every three voters.
"All polls indicate great support for this in Pennsylvania," Ruman said. "Most politicians would kill to get 66 percent in a poll."
While IDs such as a Pennsylvania driver's license, passport or military ID are all valid, the state has implemented alternatives for residents who may have lost or let their official identification expire, Ruman said.
A driver's license expired up to one year is still valid, Ruman said.
Penn State and universities in the state system such as Lock Haven, Shippensburg, Temple and Clarion, have all implemented measures to ensure their student IDs comply with the voter ID law.
Other universities, such as the University of Pittsburgh, already print expiration dates on student identification cards, Ruman said.
At Penn State, current students will be able to get a sticker with an expiration date to place on their college ID card, Penn State spokeswoman Jill Shockey said.
The university plans to issue updated IDs for incoming students with an imprinted expiration date and a photo of the student.
"One way or another, all of them will be covered," Shockey said.
U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-12th District, expressed his concern that lawmakers rushed to pass the law before the upcoming election.
"I'm very concerned that the state is not prepared to implement this law for this fall's election. We must do everything we can to ensure that all registered voters have the right and opportunity to vote," Critz said.
In July, Critz released a web app at critz.house.gov/registered-vote where constituents can find the necessary information about their voting rights.
"It's the responsibility of elected officials to inform constituents and to promote participation in our democratic process," Critz said in a press release. "This new voter registration app will allow anyone to check the status of their registration, learn about any new requirements and provide all the information needed to successfully register to vote in Pennsylvania."
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., also questioned the voter ID law, press secretary John Rizzo said.
"Sen. Casey is very concerned about this law, especially given the timing. Anything that erects barriers to voting, especially in the midst of a national election year, deserves a lot of scrutiny."
"In Blair County, I don't believe that we've had much, if any, problem with any type of voter fraud," Blair County Republican Party Chairman A.C. Stickel said.
The voter ID law is only modernizing the current voting system to bring it more in line with everyday life, where a photo ID is needed for everything from cashing a check to visiting the doctor's office, Stickel said.
The law will affect both the poorest and wealthiest citizens, Stickel said. Everyone needs an ID whether opening a bank account or cashing a paycheck or welfare check, he said. And with many Blair County polling places not within walking distance of most residents, Stickel questioned how residents without a driver's license planned to get out to vote come Election Day.
Stickel also questioned Democrats' claims of their party's voters being affected disproportionately by the new law, adding that there are poor and elderly voters on both sides of the political spectrum.
"I am just amazed at the people who think voters are going to be disenfranchised," Stickel said. "I think that the number of people who don't have [photo ID] is greatly exaggerated."
Republican Cambria County Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder said he also has no problem with the law. While he said he could not recall any instances of voter fraud in Cambria County, he added that asking voters to provide identification at the polls is a logical way to verify a person is who they say they are.
"We use ID to protect everything we do in life in terms of getting aboard an airplane, cashing a check and accessing certain buildings," Lengenfelder said. "What would we want to protect more than our freedom to vote and what that freedom means?"
Anyone who can make it to a polling place on Election Day should be able to obtain an ID in time for the election, Lengenfelder said.
Blair County Commissioner Diane Meling, a Republican, said she was in favor of the law after witnessing firsthand voter fraud in previous elections.
Meling recalled an election year in Philadelphia where a van of severely disabled people who "lacked capacity to make decisions" were ushered into the polling place. Meling said she also witnessed intimidation outside the polls and instances where police had to be called.
"There is absolutely voter fraud in Pennsylvania," Meling said. "This is about making sure people who are registered to vote are the only people that are voting. It's not about disenfranchising anybody, it's about making sure we have a fair process and it isn't abused."
Not all in favor
Blair County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Rosenhoover said there is zero credibility to claims of voter fraud in Pennsylvania.
"Basically, there is irrefutable evidence that this is not just a law to prevent so-called fraud in Pennsylvania," Rosenhoover said. "Attorney General [Linda Kelly] and other witnesses have testified before the court that there is not any evidence of any incident of any fraud of voter fraud in Pennsylvania."
Rosenhoover cited a June 23 speech by House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Turzai, R-28th, where Turzai said the voter ID law "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania."
"It is a blatant attempt to deny people their constitutional right to vote. It is a voter suppression act," Rosenhoover said.
He added the law was an "egregious attack on the right of Americans to vote" and a blatant waste of money.
The law creates an inconvenience for voters, including college students voting for the first time and elderly constituents who have lost their proper forms of identification, by blocking them from the polls, he said.
"Pennsylvania says there is no recorded evidence of voter fraud, so why do you need a law?" Rosenhoover asked. "It's a measure to punish those Democratic voters who aren't going to vote for Mitt Romney."
Other officials were less concerned about partisan issues than motivating residents to participate in the election.
Blair County Tea Party member Lois Kaneshiki said she had no objection to the law but was concerned about other instances of voter fraud.
"I understand the purpose of the law and the intent," Kaneshiki said. "Unfortunately, I think it's not the best way to go about preventing voter fraud."
A decision is coming
Judge Simpson, who heard the case in Commonwealth Court, is expected to have a decision by mid-August, which could happen as early as this week, officials said.
Regardless of the law, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said last week he was confident Republicans would win Pennsylvania in the general election.
"I think Gov. Romney is going to win this election because President Obama's policies have failed," Toomey said after a meeting with the Bedford County Development Association.
When asked about the voter ID law, Toomey said possessing a photo ID is an "essential" part of life and is required for many aspects of life, including driving a car or boarding an airplane.
"I doubt that it actually has any impact on one party or the other," Toomey said.
Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.