Pennsylvania’s voter ID law goes on trial this week. 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 Barack Obama the election, there’s a possible silver lining. The number of voters affected may not be as huge, or as overwhelmingly Democratic, as it seems. Let’s start with the trial. The Talking Points Memo website 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.)
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 vs. 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, 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 recently struck 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. Pennsylvania’s defense of its law is especially weak. The Justice Department has launched its own inquiry into whether the law discriminates against minority voters. The state has already admitted that there have been no investigations or findings of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania — the crime the law is designed to stop. That’s right, not a single one. In a country with too little voter participation and too much apathy, it is just unconscionable that we would put people through the bureaucratic wringer to vote with absolutely no evidence of the harm this is supposed to stop.