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Opinion

In Pennsylvania, the Rosa Parks of voter ID faces down GOP voter suppression

A Pennsylvania court will hear a suit challenging the state's voter ID law, which requires a volume of voter qualification proof not present in a Supreme Court ruling that upheld voter ID. Leading the charge: a 93-year-old black woman. If she loses, Republican voter suppression wins.

By Nicolaus Mills / July 11, 2012

Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann holds a postcard June 12 to help identify voters in need of a free state government issued ID card for voting. Op-ed contributor Nicolaus Mills writes that new voter ID requirements match 'the historic voter-suppression efforts that have targeted minorities rather than preserved the integrity of elections.'

Rogelio V. Solis/AP/file

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Bronxville, NY

The battle over how far states can go in their voter identification requirements will face a high-noon showdown July 25 in the Commonwealth appellate court in Pennsylvania.

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The court will hear the case of Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. At issue is a new state law signed March 14 by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The law requires voters casting ballots in person to have a photo ID from a limited number of sources, such as a driver’s license or a government-issued employee ID.

What makes the Pennsylvania case special is that it relies on a volume of voter qualification evidence not present in the definitive 2008 Supreme Court ruling that upheld Indiana’s strict voter ID photo requirements by a 6-3 vote.

In the Indiana case, Justice John Paul Stevens, a traditional defender of civil rights, sided with the Supreme Court’s conservative majority because he found no evidence that Indiana’s photo-ID requirement imposed “excessively burdensome requirements.”

The carefully prepared Pennsylvania case suffers no such evidentiary lack. It has a series of plaintiffs, led by Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year-old black woman, who worked as a welder in World War II and later marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.

The difficulties, delays, and expenses that Ms. Applewhite and the other parties to her suit have experienced are documented in the lengthy brief submitted to the court. According to state election officials, 758,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania do not have a photo ID from the state's department of transportation.

Applewhite, who lacks a driver’s license but has consistently voted since the 1960s, has, for example, made three tries to get her birth certificate from Pennsylvania’s Division of Public Records. At the time the suit bearing her name was filed, she still did not have her birth certificate, despite paying the required fee.

If Applewhite v. Pennsylvania fails to set a limit – and a precedent – for how far a state can go in requiring voters to identify themselves, there’s no end in sight to the Republican drive for more voter ID laws, a highly successful campaign so far.

Republicans say these laws are necessary to combat voter fraud, but it’s hard to interpret them as anything other than an attempt to suppress voter turnout, especially among minorities and the poor, two groups most often lacking driver’s licenses. Since the beginning of 2011, eight states have passed voter photo ID laws, though some are not yet in effect. More such legislation is on its way.

In the case of Pennsylvania, Republicans have no doubt which party the new voter ID law will benefit. Their state House majority leader has already made headlines by telling a meeting of the Republican State Committee: “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

Critics of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Indiana case point out how, in Indiana and in states across the country, there is very little evidence of personal voter fraud, and they are right. Indeed, the court’s majority opinion found “no evidence” of the type of fraud that the Indiana law was supposed to protect against.

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