How we got here: The voter ID controversy’s extensive ties to Northwest Philadelphia

Pennsylvania’s controversial voter ID law will have its day in court starting Wednesday, a day after what are expected to be raucous rallies in Harrisburg.

In May, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of House Bill 934, which requires that all voters present valid photo identification before casting a ballot in state and federal elections.

“It’s the most important case we’ve done since I’ve been here,” said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Center of Philadelphia, which will argue the case in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg along with the ACLU. “It’s part of a national problem of laws passed to suppress votes.”

Fraud fight vs. concerted disfranchisement

Grave concerns about voter disfranchisement sit at the center of the case.

It’s feared that thousands across the Commonwealth will be unable to vote in the Presidential election in November, when the law takes effect, and beyond if the measure remains in place.

Seniors, minorities and college students are among the groups believed to be most at risk.

Supporters of the law maintain that it’s a common-sense approach to cutting down on instances of fraud at the polls.

The suit, filed on behalf of 10 plaintiffs, specifically names Gov. Tom Corbett, who signed the bill into law in March, and Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele, whose duties include overseeing Pennsylvania elections.

Ron Ruman, Aichele’s spokesperson, has said that the law stands on sound legal footing.

“We feel confident that our statute will be upheld. Our lawyers will do what they can to defend it,” Ruman told NewsWorks in May.

Germantown woman is lead plaintiff

Viviette Applewhite of Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood is the case’s lead plaintiff.

Born and raised in the city, the 93-year-old currently only has a birth certificate, a document she was able to obtain with the help of a pro-bono lawyer after the suit.

She still, however, lacks the necessary social security card. It will be a challenging task to obtain it, according to ACLU officials, because Applewhite does not have a marriage certificate to prove a name change. (Applewhite’s maiden name is Brooks.)

“I just don’t think it’s right. I don’t think it’s fair,” Applewhite told NewsWorks a day after the suit was filed when asked about the law.

The ACLU requested that media interviews with their client about the case wait until after Applewhite has testified.

At least 15 witnesses – all individuals who will currently be unable to vote in November’s election – will testify during the course of the hearing, said Clarke.

Lawyers with the Advancement Project and Arnold & Porter, a Washington DC law firm, will also be part of the proceedings

Locally sponsored repeal effort

In addition to the hearing, there are both legislative and grassroots efforts underway to fight the law.

In late April, state Reps. John Myers (D-201) and Dwight Evans (D-203) introduced House Bill 2313, which calls for a complete repeal of the law.

The measure is currently sitting in the House State Government Committee, a group chaired by state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R- Butler), who drafted the original voter ID bill.

Evans doesn’t expect his measure, co-sponsored by more than 70 lawmakers, to be addressed anytime soon, but said it is nonetheless important to have it on the books, literally and symbolically.

For Evans, who is among a collection of lawmakers from the politically active northwest Philadelphia section of the city that are active in the opposition effort, the “backwards” law stung.

“We got in office on the basis that people had a right to vote,” he said. “And now, in the most cynical way I’ve ever seen in my entire life and political life, you have people using the political process because they have the numbers.”

The measure came across Corbett’s desk on the heels of two highly partisan votes in the House and Senate. He signed the bill into law on March 15, making Pennsylvania the 16th state in the country to have such a requirement.

Voter ID Coalition HQ opens in NW Philly

Though Evans and other opponents across the state are optimistic that the ACLU-led court challenge will be successful, education efforts around the law are beginning to ramp up.

“The law is the law. It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that people know what’s necessary to comply with Act 18,” said Joseph Certaine, a self-described co-convener of the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition.

On Saturday, the growing statewide group held an open house in Germantown to celebrate the opening of its new city-based headquarters.

The storefront office on West Chelten Avenue will serve as the command center for field operations aimed at educating residents about the nuances of the law and helping them obtain any missing paperwork needed to obtain an ID. It’ll be open at least six days a week, essentially during business hours.

Volunteers will focus nearly all of their energy on reaching out to ID-less voters. They’ll start going door-to-door this week.

Recent figures released by PennDOT indicate that 187,000 Philadelphians fit that description. The same statistics revealed that there are nearly 800,000 statewide.

For years, Certaine played an active role in the state’s political scene, including stints in both Rendell’s mayoral and gubernatorial administrations.

“This is literally the biggest, most important assignment or job that I’ve had in my lifetime,” said Certaine, who is now retired, during the well-attended event. “Not only because we’re protecting what was already built, but because of the numbers of people that were involved in this that have no idea this is going to smack them in the face in November.

Local reaction

Residents with whom NewsWorks spoke at the coalition-headquarters opening event appeared eager to help reduce the PennDOT figure.

Diane Mohney of Germantown is among those who plan on volunteering her time to the coalition’s cause as a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and in her neighborhood as needed.

“Voting is a right, not a privilege,” said Mohney. “You should be able to show up and vote, period, because you’re a human being, not because you have your birth certificate from some place or certain ID.”

Mjenzi Traylor of East Mount Airy shared in Mohney’s outrage. He said he believes his area of the city is particularly eager to fight back.

For many of them, it’s personal.

“A lot of the older heads, like myself, worked on this issue 40 or more years ago,” said Traylor. “We have to [educate voters] regardless of how optimistic we might be about the court case.”

The Committee of Seventy, the government watchdog group, is leading the 100-plus member organizations currently part of the coalition.

Calling the grassroots effort “daunting,” said Zach Stalberg, Seventy’s president. “There’s a lot of hard work for us to do, but the one good thing is it’s the outrage that’s keeping people in the game.”

Descending upon Harrisburg today

In what will likely be the biggest show of force to date, organizations and individuals, many from Philadelphia, will descend on the state capitol Tuesday afternoon in advance of the hearing for an NAACP-organized opposition rally.

In the northwest, a contingent of nearly 100 individuals will be heading to the event banner of KeepMyVote.org, a grassroots organization including a mix of residents and elected officials.

Speakers at the “Rally for Justice” will include, among others, Pennsylvania NAACP President Jerry Mondesire, AARP Pennsylvania State Director Ivonne Guitierrez Bucher, state Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Delaware/Montgomery) and Dr. Robert Shine Sr. with the Pennsylvania Statewide Coalition of Black Clergy.

“We feel very strongly about getting this bill overturned in the courts,” said Michael Moore, co-coordinator of KeepMyVote.org. “Hopefully [the rally] will do something to sway the judges.”

PILCOP’s Clarke said she expects the hearing to last about six days, followed by a relatively swift decision from Judge Robert Simpson.

Clarke also fully expects there to be an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court regardless of Simpson’s ruling.

“It’s fair to say that both sides have very, very strong feelings about this case,” she said.

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