Pennsylvania’s voter ID law goes on trial today. The first thing this challenge to the state’s law has going for it are the real people who will testify about why it means they can’t vote. The second thing is the Pennsylvania constitution. And the third is the utter lack of legitimate justification for the burdens the law imposes. This law should go down, and now, before it can cause problems in November. But if you’re a Democrat worried that the law—which requires voters to show an approved form of photo ID at the polls—is going to cost President Obama the election, there’s a possible silver lining here. The number of voters affected may not be as huge, or as overwhelmingly Democratic, as it seems. Let’s start with the trial. Talking Points Memo and the New York Times have introduced us to 93-year-old Viviette Applewhite and 60-year-old Wilola Shinholster Lee. Applewhite has never had a driver’s license, lost her Social Security card when her purse was stolen, and can’t easily get a new one because she has changed her name twice to marry. Lee—who was born in Georgia but has lived in Pennsylvania since she was 5 years old—lost her birth certificate in a house fire and she can’t get another one. (According to the state of Georgia, her original birth certificate was lost in a fire there, too.) Thanks to smart P.R. by the ACLU and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which represent the plaintiffs, you canread or see these women and other affected voters.
If it seems obvious that you need disenfranchised voters to challenge a voter ID law, it somehow wasn’t in 2008, when the suit to block Indiana’s law offered up no witnesses who said they’d find it hard to vote because of the new requirements. The case, Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, was actually a farce on both sides: Indiana couldn’t present any evidence that the voter fraud the law was supposed to prevent existed. But Indiana’s law wasn’t as onerous as the new wave of voter ID laws—check out this disturbing roundup from the Brennan Center—and in a decision by Justice John Paul Stevens six Supreme Court justices ruled that Indiana’s law could stand. So you can see why Viviette Applewhite and Wilola Lee have a starring role this time around.
The precedent set by Crawford remains a stumbling block for the Pennsylvania plaintiffs, but not a huge one. That’s because they are relying on the state constitution, which explicitly protects the right to vote—a guarantee that is missing from our dear national founding document. Relying similarly on the Wisconsin constitution, two judges in that state recentlystruck down their onerous voter ID law, finding that its requirements were “unlikely to protect the electoral process,” and substantially impaired the right to vote as guaranteed by the state constitution. The Missouri Supreme Court also tossed voter ID based on the state constitution in 2006.