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Philadelphia Freedom

Fifty years after marching in Macon, Georgia with Dr. Martin Luther King to achieve the right to vote in the United States, Viviette Applewhite is reliving the fight to overcome discriminatory voting practices in her current home city of Philadelphia.

That march in 1963 with Dr. King was one harrowing episode of many that eventually led to the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawing discriminatory voting practices, practices that were largely responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans in the United States.  The Voting Rights Act was signed into law precisely one century after the beginning of the American Reconstruction when President Lincoln took steps to counter the Radical Republicans and enfranchize the rights of the Freedmen (former slaves).

Ms. Applewhite was recently joined by 12 other petitioners in Pennsylvania state court challenging Pennsylvania’s Act 18, popularly known as the “Photo ID Law”.

The petitioners claim that

“Pennsylvania will not have their votes counted on November 6, 2012 because they will be unable to present acceptable photo identification (“ID”) as required by the Photo ID Law. The Commonwealth estimates that 80,000-90,000 Pennsylvanians will need to obtain a new photo ID to vote on November 6, 2012. Other estimates suggest the number may be far greater. Many otherwise qualified voters will face great difficulty or be unable to obtain the necessary ID and will therefore be disenfranchised in the upcoming general election and future elections. As a result, far from protecting the integrity of Pennsylvania elections, the Photo ID Law will lead to elections that are no longer free and equal.”

Despite nonexistent voter fraud and clear indications of partisan motivations in the intent of this law, Republican Judge Robert Simpson of Pennsylvania conceded in his ruling that there might be political motives underlying the legislation and it might even create a hardship for tens of thousands of voters.  However, his finding indicates that state and federal case law apparently give legislatures sufficient latitude to regulate voting unless done in a “clearly discriminatory or burdensome way.”

From across the Delaware, this seems to be symptomatic of a severe perception deficit disorder.

According to Pennsylvania’s House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) tellingly declared, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done,” at a recent Pennsylvania Republican State Committee meeting.  Apparently this is not sufficiently “clearly discriminatory”.

Pennsylvania is a critical swing state in the upcoming November election.   A Republican presidential candidate has not won the state in two decades.   Perhaps that could change in 2012.

The petitioners will now take their case to the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court. However, there’s still a big element of uncertainty at the state Supreme Court level. There’s an even 3-3 split between Democrats and Republicans on the Court because the 7th Justice, Republican Joan Orie Melvin, is currently being investigated on corruption charges. So this will mean that the petitioners will need one crossover vote to win a majority and strike down the law. Chief Justice Ronald Castille, a moderate Republican from Philadelphia, may be their huckleberry.

In addition to a state challenge, however, there may be a federal one.  The United States Justice Department is currently investigating the issue.   Under Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, there isa general prohibition of any voting practice or procedure that results in discrimination. Actual “proof” of intentional discrimination is not required.  It focuses on whether the electoral processes are equally accessible to minority voters.  This could eventually provide the relief sought by the petitioners if the challenge rises to this level but it’s uncertain whether it could even precede the November election.

Ms. Applewhite is an upstanding American citizen who has voted in nearly every election for the past 50 years.  She was born in 1919 in Philadelphia and worked as a welder during World War II in the Sun Shipyard in Chester, Pennsylvania. She marched to support civil rights for African-Americans with Dr. King, Jr and traveled hundreds of miles many times for his inspiring speeches in Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. Ms. Applewhite doesn’t have and has been unable to obtain photo identification required by Pennsylvania’s voter photo ID law.   After voting for more than 50 years, she may likely unable to cast a ballot this November.

If any of the petitioners pay federal or state taxes, and they most certainly do, will this become an issue of taxation without representation?

Ms. Applewhite and every other American citizen living in Pennsylvania and the United States has the right, not the privilege, to file the votes of their choice on the November ballot without detriment.

Voter ID laws are akin to poll taxes and literacy tests, created to screen out African Americans and long outlawed by the Voting Rights Act. Although voting in the United States is a right and not a privilege, vast numbers of disenfranchised Americans have marched, sacrificed dearly and in some cases shed blood for this “right” half a century ago.   As Americans we don’t need to refight this legacy so basic to our democracy.

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Thomas P. Davis

Thomas P. Davis

I'm a freelance writer based in New Jersey. I've been writing about public issues for 10 years.