City woman is lead plaintiff against Pa. voter ID

Viviette Applewhite of Germantown lost her ID years ago when her purse was stolen.
Viviette Applewhite of Germantown lost her ID years ago when her purse was stolen. (JAN HEFLER / Staff)
Posted: May 03, 2012

HARRISBURG - Wartime welder, civil-rights marcher, world traveler, voter - Viviette Applewhite of Philadelphia's Germantown section can boast of having been all those things.

On Tuesday, she added another title: plaintiff.

Applewhite, who is 93 and uses a wheelchair, became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed here in state court by the ACLU and the NAACP challenging Pennsylvania's new law requiring voters to produce a driver's license or other photo identification before they are allowed to vote.

Applewhite says she has voted since 1960, when she cast her first presidential ballot for John F. Kennedy. But she doesn't have a driver's license. And since she has been unable to obtain a birth certificate from the state, Applewhite says, she will not meet the law's requirements and therefore will be barred from voting in the Nov. 6 presidential election.

The suit seeks to overturn what it calls a "draconian" law, a measure the plaintiffs and their lawyers contend will lead to the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters - including Applewhite.

"It stinks," she said in a video prepared by the ACLU and aired Tuesday at a news conference in the Capitol. "They are taking our rights away."

The suit was filed in Commonwealth Court on behalf of 10 plaintiffs, among them three elderly women who say they cannot obtain necessary ID because they were born in the Jim Crow South, where states have no records of their births.

"What we're not talking about here is just any right, we're talking about the right to vote," Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said at the news conference. "Two hundred years ago, we actually fought a war for this right. This is an extremely important right."

Gov. Corbett, who signed the voter ID bill into law in March, and other supporters have defended it, saying it will protect the integrity of the voting process.

A chief defendant named in the suit is Corbett's commonwealth secretary, Carol Aichele, who as head of the Department of State oversees Pennsylvania elections. Her spokesman, Ron Ruman, said Aichele believes the law will stand up in court.

"We believe the law is on sound legal footing," Ruman said Tuesday. "The question that needs to be asked is, does Pennsylvania have a reliable way to identify voters? This law makes the ID verifiable."

Corbett has said that only 1 percent of voters in Pennsylvania don't have driver's licenses and that PennDot offices would provide free photo ID cards to those roughly 80,000 to 90,000 people if they produce birth certificates or other acceptable proofs of identity.

The ACLU's Walczak contends that the estimate is low and that the law unfairly targets urban voters, students, the disabled, minorities, and the elderly - along with women whose names are different from those on their birth certificates because of marriage.

"Far from protecting the integrity of Pennsylvania elections photo ID law will lead to elections that no longer free or equal," the lawsuit says.

The new law had what officials called a "soft rollout" during the April 24 primary, during which voters were asked for photo ID but did not have to produce it. Voters will have to produce acceptable forms of photo ID to vote in the Nov. 6 general election.

Applewhite, wearing a sparkly gray shawl and pearl earrings, paused for a brief interview Tuesday evening outside her apartment. She had become an instant celebrity - she was in a hurry, en route to an appearance on MSNBC's Al Sharpton's PoliticsNation.

She said she can't understand why officials seem unable to locate her birth certificate, the document she needs to take to a PennDot office in order to obtain a nondriver's photo ID card and thus be allowed to vote.

Applewhite may be well-traveled - nine countries and 48 states, she says - but she never learned to drive, and all of her ID disappeared years ago when her purse was stolen.

The fact that Americans who once marched for civil rights might be turned away at the polls was not lost on critics of the law. "It's more than ironic that people fought courageously for the right to vote in the civil-rights era would have it stripped away by this bill," said Marian Schneider, a lawyer with the Washington-based Advancement Project, a civil-rights advocacy group.

Another plaintiff in the suit, Wilola Lee, 59, a retired Philadelphia schools employee, was born in rural Georgia. The suit says Lee has been voting for decades, has worked as a poll worker in Philadelphia, and has been trying to get her birth certificate from Georgia officials for a decade - only to be told they have no record of her birth.

Walczak - who is seeking expedited consideration by the court in advance of the November elections - assailed what he called the state's "phantom claims" of voter fraud.

While there have been a number of allegations of voter fraud, particularly in Philadelphia, state officials have produced no evidence from the last decade of any voter "impersonation" fraud that photo ID requirements address.

Plaintiffs in lawsuit, Walczak said, "put a lie to the commonwealth's claim that no one will be affected by the law."

The suit also alleges that the state's promise of a free photo ID from PennDot is misleading - in that birth certificates needed to obtain this ID cost $10 in Pennsylvania, and more if one has to obtain the document from another state.

The lawsuit's chances in court are unclear. Of 20 states that have approved voter identification laws in the last two years, legal challenges have been mounted in at least four. In March, the U.S. Justice Department blocked Texas from enforcing a photo ID law. At the same time, a Wisconsin state judge ruled that requiring a photo ID to vote was unconstitutional.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court, however, upheld an Indiana law requiring voters to show photo identification, saying the law reflected the state's valid interest in honest voting.

Walczak contended that Pennsylvania's case is different from Indiana's because the plaintiffs here contend the law violates the state constitution, not the federal Constitution, and that the relevant provisions are different.

In addition, Indiana plaintiffs did not produce anyone who would be directly denied a ballot by that state's law, while most of the Pennsylvania plaintiffs, given their inability to secure proper ID, would surely be blocked from voting on Nov. 6, the lawyer contended.

Doing battle isn't a new experience for Applewhite; in World War II, she worked as a welder in the Sun Ship yards in Chester, a beehive of activity during the wartime buildup. At the height of the civil-rights movement, she said, she walked in a march led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Macon, Ga.

"I was living in Chicago at the time and was visiting someone down there," Applewhite recalled Tuesday. "I remember there was a lot of people at the walk. I wasn't scared at all."

Helen Brown, 60, a Germantown neighbor who has known her for five years, said she is not surprised that Applewhite joined the lawsuit.

"She is always feisty," Brown said. "She's always spoken her mind, and she goes wherever she wants to go."


Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.

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