Annette John-Hall: Small surprise but much anger in Pa. ruling on voter ID

Posted: August 17, 2012

Surprise, surprise. A Commonwealth Court judge rejected the challenge to Pennsylvania's voter ID law.

I can't even say I'm shocked. Angry? Darned right I am. But shocked?

Truth is, I didn't expect any good would come out of the well-intentioned effort by a coalition of lawyers to appeal a law ginned up to prevent fraud but that in and of itself perpetrates the worst kind of fraud.

Proving, once more, that "we haven't achieved full democracy, and the struggle for the right to vote is the history of that," says Lorraine Minnite, a Rutgers-Camden professor and author of The Myth of Voter Fraud.

All we have to do is look at the Corbett administration's systematic chipping away of programs that reduce working-class citizens to poor and the poor to downright destitute to figure out what's going on here.

Flash back to four years ago. Record voter turnout for Barack Obama. Lines of voters - young, old, rich, and poor, of all races and religions - snaked around the block to choose this country's first African American president. That kind of democracy in action was a beautiful thing to see.

But you'd better believe that a whole lot of people on the other side of the political spectrum had already begun plotting to make sure it wouldn't happen again.

It's no mystery why draconian voter ID laws started cropping up in crucial swing states and the South - the birthplace of disenfranchisement.

During a Wednesday conference call, lawyers for the plaintiffs vowed to appeal to the state Supreme Court on Thursday. They hope for a better outcome, predicting that the high court will apply stricter standards of scrutiny than the lower court did.

Truth is, we can go back and forth about lenient standards vs. strict scrutiny. We can debate legalese until our eyes glaze over.

But the bottom line is, the game is rigged. I mean, how can you present compelling evidence from 10 plaintiffs who legitimately have difficulty in securing the necessary documents to get an ID; have the state sign a document saying it had no evidence of fraud; and have a human smoking gun in the form of the Republican lawmaker who actually gloated that the law guaranteed Mitt Romney a win in Pennsylvania?

You can't make a better case than that.

If there's one bipartisan thing we all should agree on, it's that every American should have the right to vote, and that we should implement laws that make it easier to exercise that right, not harder.

But history says otherwise.

Southern blacks, poor whites, and immigrants were slapped with poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent them from gaining any kind of foothold to power.

Try reciting the Declaration of Independence backward. Or naming Thomas Jefferson's 200 slaves. Or guessing how many peanuts it takes to fill a basket to the brim. Those kinds of tests were used to deny folks their right to vote in the early 20th century.

Hard to believe it's 2012 and we're watching it happen again.

So what to do? Well, lawyers for the plaintiffs will continue to battle it out. But a final ruling might not come until after the election. And I don't even want to think about the voter chaos that could ensue in November, a possibility that Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr. dismissed as "hypothetical."

Those folks who spout off so righteously about protecting the Constitution seem to have conveniently forgotten about the rights of fellow citizens being stripped away.

"No matter what people do and say, there will be many, many, many people who don't know about this law and will not be able to vote," says Jennifer Clarke of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. "All we can do is try."

Well, we can do more than that.

History tells us we can't depend on the legal system, which has a long legacy of upholding injustice. After all, slavery was once upheld by the courts. So were discrimination and denying voting rights to African Americans and women.

What people don't realize is that some folks have huge problems just getting documentation that others take for granted.

Consider Viviette Applewhite, the lead plaintiff challenging the law.

At 93, she has voted in all but one election since she was 21, she says. And though she marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the right to vote and clearly has plenty of fight left in her, she may not be able to vote this year. Her purse was stolen years ago, and she hasn't been able to get the Social Security card she needs for a replacement ID.

"To think about the trajectory of her life, that she was born during Jim Crow and what she came through, is the story of America trying to become better," Minnite says. "And when I think that she may not be able to vote in this election -."

It's enough to make you sick. It should be enough to make you act.


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.

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