Pennsylvania's Voter ID Law Faces Court Challenge

Several groups are challenging Pennsylvania's law requiring voters to show an approved photo ID at their polling place. Opponents claim it could prevent thousands of people — mostly poor and minorities — from voting in November. But the law's backers say it's needed to ensure the integrity of elections.

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Pennsylvania is the latest state where a voter identification law is being challenged in court. Opponents of the law say having to show a photo ID at the polls would burden the poor, minorities and elderly voters. But Pennsylvania Republicans say the law will ensure integrity of elections by reducing fraud.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports a resolution to the case may be months away.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The first name listed on the court challenge is Viviette Applewhite of Philadelphia. She's a 93-year-old African-American woman who says she's voted in just about every election since 1960.

VIVIETTE APPLEWHITE: I'm going to miss this one though because I don't have nothing. I don't have any ID. Somebody stole my pocketbook and I have never been able to get them back.

BRADY: In a video posted on an American Civil Liberties Union website, Applewhite says she has not been able to replace her identification. Pennsylvania is among 10 states with laws requiring photo IDs at polling places.

APPLEWHITE: They never told me why or nothing. I think it stinks. That's what I do. I just think it's really, absolutely - I think it's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of.

BRADY: Nearly all the state laws were passed under Republican-controlled legislatures. Democrats say that's no accident, because they believe the laws give the GOP an advantage. In Pennsylvania, Democrats point to a comment House Majority Leader Mike Turzai delivered at the end of last month.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE MIKE TURZAI: Voter ID - which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania - done.

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BRADY: A spokesman for Turzai tells NPR his boss intended to convey that this will be the first election in a long time in which Pennsylvania will have a level playing field for both parties. Among Republicans, there is a stated belief that voting fraud is a big problem that needs to be addressed. Responding to that, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed voter ID and the Republican governor signed the law in March. Now the Republican Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele is implementing it.

CAROL AICHELE: We believe very strongly in one person, one vote, one time. And voter ID will help us move in that direction.

BRADY: But there's no evidence that this type of voting fraud is a big problem in Pennsylvania. In court, the state, which is defending the law, says it's not aware of even one instance of in-person voter fraud. The state estimates there are fewer than 100,000 eligible voters in Pennsylvania who don't have the ID they will need on Election Day. But outside the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg, Vic Walczak with the ACLU says he thinks that number could be as high as one million voters.

VIC WALCZAK: If this law is allowed to stand and thousands of people are turned away from the polls, the legitimacy of Pennsylvania's election in November will be called into question.

BRADY: As opponents challenge the law in court, activists and the state are scrambling to help voters get the photo ID they'll need. Secretary Aichele says there's a program in place to issue free IDs that are relatively easy to get.

AICHELE: If I do my job well - and I intend to do my job well - it will not change the outcome of the election.

BRADY: Despite Aichele's assurances, the U.S. Department of Justice wants to know more about how the voter ID law has been implemented. Meanwhile, the trial challenging the law likely will wrap up this week. A decision is expected next month, but whoever loses probably will appeal.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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