Lead plaintiff in Pa. voter ID case gets her photo ID

Posted: August 17, 2012

The day after a judge upheld Pennsylvania's new voter identification law, the lead plaintiff in the suit seeking to block the law went to a PennDot office and was issued the photo ID card she needs to vote.

Nothing has changed since Viviette Applewhite, 93, testified in July. The law stands. She still doesn't have a driver's license or Social Security card. The name on her birth certificate is still different from the name on her other documents - all of which, under the law, should have barred her from getting her photo ID.

But at precisely 1:16 p.m. Thursday, she got it anyway.

"You just have to keep trying," said Applewhite, who uses an electric wheelchair. "Don't give up."

State officials called it an unplanned exercise in what they've been saying for weeks: Clerks behind counters at Pennsylvania Department of Transportation centers can take age and other factors into consideration when granting exceptions to the list of documents the law requires, licensing bureau director Janet Dolan said.

"PennDot has said all along that they would work with folks on a case-by-case basis," said Ron Ruman, a Department of State spokesman.

Call it the Applewhite rule.

Word of her success threw her lawyers into something of a tizzy. A leader of a civil liberties group challenging the law promptly cast doubt on the state's motives.

"PennDot was flexible providing the ID without Mrs. Applewhite having the documents required by law. We wonder if that would be the case for someone who wasn't a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit and the subject of a lot of attention in the press," said Penda Hair, codirector of the Advancement Project.

Even so, an Inquirer reporter who accompanied Applewhite to the PennDot center on Cheltenham Avenue in the city's West Oak Lane section saw no sign that the clerk recognized her or realized she was a major figure in the battle over the law.

Applewhite - who rode two SEPTA buses to get to the center - showed the clerk a Medicare card from the 1990s, its edges frayed from years of being pulled out of her pocketbook. It listed her Social Security number, but only the last seven digits were visible. A state Department of Public Welfare document showed her name, signature, and Social Security number - but all in her own handwriting. Other documents showed her street address in the city's Germantown section. She had no documents verifying that the Viviette Virene Brooks listed on her birth certificate was the same person as the Viviette Applewhite applying for an ID.

Her lawyers later issued a statement including a comment from Witold Walczak, legal director of the state ACLU: "We are delighted for Ms. Applewhite. She has been trying to obtain PennDot ID for years and now she will be able to vote in November after all." But he cautioned that there are "thousands of Ms. Applewhites out there who still don't have ID. It would be nice if PennDot relaxed the rules for all of them."

For her part, Applewhite was thrilled. She returned to her apartment after little more than an hour at the PennDot office and proudly showed off her new ID. "I got it, Miss Cunningham," she told a neighbor. "I didn't fight for nothing. I fought and got my rights."

Applewhite had vowed to keep fighting as the ACLU prepared to appeal Commonwealth Court Judge Robert E. Simpson Jr.'s ruling. The lawyers for her and the other plaintiffs say it's unclear now whether she will remain part of the suit - which claims the law would bar her from exercising the voting rights she's enjoyed for more than half a century.

Knowing she will be able to vote on Nov. 6 is a great comfort to her, she said. "I'll be able to close my eyes and go to sleep at night, not worry about this mess," she said.

Applewhite told of trying for years to get new ID, ever since her pocketbook was stolen along with her Social Security card and other documents.

PennDot's official guidelines say a Social Security card is required in order to obtain a nondriver photo ID. A PennDot employee answering the agency's voter ID hotline Thursday said the card was a must.

But according to Dolan, who heads the licensing bureau, eligible voters who don't have one can try to persuade a clerk with a combination of other items.

"We want people to come with appropriate documentation the first time," Dolan said. "That's why we've been telling everyone all along" what items to bring.

That message has caused some confusion, even among people who have studied the paperwork. Sara Mullen, one of Applewhite's lawyers, thought the efforts would be futile without a Social Security card. "I keep telling her, 'Why do you keep going down there?' " But Applewhite persisted.

All the way home on the bus Thursday, she kept her pocketbook open on her lap, glancing down over and over again to smile at the ID card. A fellow rider commented on how happy she looked.

"I really am," Applewhite replied. "Happy as a clam."


Contact Jessica Parks at 215-854-2771 or jparks@philly.com.

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