In a sweltering heat, they stood united.
On Tuesday afternoon, several hundred opponents of Pennsylvania’s controversial voter ID law brought their fight to the steps of the State Capitol for a passion-filled rally a day before the measure’s constitutionally is challenged in Commonwealth Court.
Residents from across the state crowded around a podium for more than two hours as speaker after speaker, many of whom were from Northwest Philadelphia, decried House Bill 934.
The measure, signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett in mid-March, requires that all voters present valid photo identification before casting a ballot at the poll.
Locals rally against the measure
Reverends, union leaders and Democratic lawmakers, many from Philadelphia, all voiced strong concerns during the NAACP-organized event. They maintained that thousands of voters — seniors citizens, minorities and college students in particular — will be disenfranchised as a result.
“For some strange reason, if you are disabled, if you are re-entering society, if you have a little melanin in your skin, if you’re a woman, that’s not American enough to have the right to vote,” said a heated state Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia).
Nearly 800,000 Pennsylvania could be ineligible to vote if the law remains on the books, according to recently released statistics by PennDOT. In Philadelphia, the figure is more than 180,000.
Questioning the voter-fraud argument
Many openly chided Corbett for approving a law, they argued, has no basis in reality.
Proponents maintain the measure is a common-sense approach to reducing voter fraud. Little concrete evidence, however, has yet surfaced to support that claim.
“The voter ID bill is based on a lie. Tom Corbett is a liar,” said Jerry Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia and state chapters of the NAACP. “There is no voter ID fraud in Pennsylvania.”
Mondesire, however, also had a pragmatic part to his message.
As several others would throughout the afternoon, he urged the crowd to hit the streets to help ensure that anybody in need of an ID gets one.
Outreach effort growing
Efforts to that end are already underway. Lawmakers have held education sessions. This past weekend, the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition, a grassroots group representing more than 100 organizations, opened up its field office in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood.
Volunteers will focus their energies on going door-to-door to speak with voters who may need a birth certificate or a social security card, both crucial documents to obtain a valid photo ID under the law.
PennDOT is tasked with issuing government-issued photo IDs, including non-driver’s licenses and a yet-to-be-released card that will be issued for voting purposes only. The new ID is expected to be available sometime in August, though no hard date has been decided.
Calling the government department “an obstacle,” state Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D-Philadelphia) said the government department has not been helpful.
“I have had constituents come into my office and tell me they’ve made five trips to PennDOT to try and get a voter ID,” said Youngblood.
During a press conference inside the Capitol immediately following the rally, Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele stood by the law.
Protestors, who were kept out of the public event, were heard rallying outside the doors of the first-floor Senate Caucus room as Aichele, who oversees elections, addressed a room of reporters and a few state lawmakers.
“I’m not a huge student of American history, but if you think about it, voter fraud has been part of the American experience since the very beginning,” said Aichele over the din of the crowd. “What I hope to do with this law is to make sure that every eligible voter has a photo ID and we have more fair and honest elections in Pennsylvania.”
Aichele noted that, based on election statistics in state’s with similar laws in place, she expects voter turnout to increase in the upcoming election.
Foes respond to Aichele’s response
During a separate, impromptu press conference held immediately afterwards, a panel of state lawmakers expressed their disdain for Aichele’s remarks and reiterated the need to wipe the law from the record.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D- Philadelphia) said the state government is rushing the rollout of this law to the detriment of voters.
“At this point, this state is not ready to implement voter ID,” said Hughes. “It is ready to implement voter suppression.”
Case goes to court Wednesday
A multi-day hearing will kick-off inside Commonwealth Court beginning Wednesday. Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations will argue that the law stands on shaky constitutional ground.
State officials have said that they believe the law stands on sound legal footing.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year-old woman from Germantown.