Hearings set on PA voter ID law

NAACP stages big rally in Harrisburg against the Voter ID law on eve of court hearings. Here, PA Sen. Anthony Williams denounces the Voter ID Law as he addresses a crowd od several hundred people on the capital steps in Harrisburg. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
NAACP stages big rally in Harrisburg against the Voter ID law on eve of court hearings. Here, PA Sen. Anthony Williams denounces the Voter ID Law as he addresses a crowd od several hundred people on the capital steps in Harrisburg. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 26, 2012

GERMANTOWN resident Wilola Lee, 60, would like to continue to exercise her right to vote, which she has done for more than 30 years. But a voter-ID law passed in March in Pennsylvania requires a birth certificate for voters without a valid photo ID and Lee says she's been trying for 10 years to get one.

She was born in rural Georgia and moved to Philly in 1957, and Georgia officials have told Lee they have no record of her birth.

She got a bit of a reprieve on Friday when the Pennsylvania Department of State said it would offer a new photo-ID card at PennDOT driver's-license centers that will not require a birth certificate.

Lee, who declined to speak with the Daily News, is one of 10 plaintiffs represented by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union in a suit challenging the new law in Commonwealth Court on grounds that it will disenfranchise thousands of voters.

A hearing on the case begins Wednesday in Harrisburg and is expected to last at least a week. The plaintiffs are asking a judge to stop the state from enforcing the law.

State officials said in a court filing on July 12 that they were not aware of any incidents of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania and would not offer any evidence such fraud is likely to occur on Election Day in the absence of the law.

Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department has launched an ivestigation into the law.

Lee, a retired Philadelphia school district employee, also has worked as a poll official in the city.

"Wilola does not have a driver's license and has never driven in her entire life," said Sara Mullen, associate director of the state ACLU.

Lee is likely to be one of the first witnesses to testify in Commonwealth Court.

Earlier this month, the Department of State said that more than 750,000 registered voters in the state do not have a PennDOT photo ID, including almost 187,000 in Philadelphia.

Despite recent voter outreach efforts, a PennDOT spokeswoman said that only 1,321 free photo IDs for voting purposes had been issued as of July 18. While PennDOT does not track how many photo IDs it issues every day in Philadelphia, the department averaged 37,000 per month in 2011 for all five driver's license sites in the city, spokeswoman Jan McKnight said.

Many seniors are frail and homebound, do not live near PennDOT driver's-license centers and don't have the means to reach one, said Linda Riley, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging. This group may be disenfranchised by the ID requirement, she said.

The Department of State has begun contacting voters by mail and meeting with senior centers and community and church leaders to inform them about the law. Spokesman Nick Winkler said the department will also begin rolling out a $3 million media campaign commencing around Labor Day.

Winkler said the new photo IDs for voters who can't obtain a birth certificate won't be ready until the end of August because officials need to make sure the cards are verified."This is a secure card that can only be used for voting purposes," he said. "We're not going to issue these cards willy-nilly. We want to make sure everything checks out."

He also said that people who no longer have a PennDOT driver's license but who had one in the past wouldn't need other documents and could simply go to a driver's-license center and obtain a photo ID. There are other acceptable forms of photo ID, including those issued by a Pennsylvania personal-care or nursing home.

But Riley said fewer than 11,000 city residents live in personal-care or nursing homes, meaning that a large number of seniors wouldn't have such photo ID.

Riley said that relaxing the requirement for a birth certificate was "certainly a step in the right direction" but thinks the state should wait until after 2012 before implementing the new law.

"I really feel like they rushed into this thing. There's only one reason for rushing it, and it's political," Riley said.

In June, the Republican leader in the state House, Rep. Mike Turzai, told a group of GOP colleagues that the voter-ID law would help presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania in November. News of that remark sparked a firestorm from opponents of voter-ID laws across the country.

"This is life and death," state NAACP President Jerry Mondesire said at a rally in Harrisburg on Tuesday. "This is the future of our country."

Noting that proponents of the law said it was necessary to deter in-person voter fraud, Mondesire said that the new voter-ID law was "based on a lie."

Contact Michael Hinkelman at 215-854-2656 or hinkelm@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHinkelman.

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