Monday, July 15, 2013

Voter ID Trial Begins

For the second July in a row, Harrisburg's Judicial Center played host to a voter ID trial. Once again, reporters and interested citizens packed the courtroom to watch lawyers from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Advancement Project, and Arnold & Porter go toe-to-toe with lawyers from the commonwealth over the constitutionality of the state's voter ID law.

A notable difference from the previous two trials was the absence of Judge Robert Simpson. Presiding in his stead was Judge Bernard McGinley, a Pittsburgh resident who was first elected to Commonwealth Court in 1987.

After some technical delays and a brief meeting with counsel in the judge's chambers, the trial began. Michael Rubin of Arnold & Porter delivered the plaintiffs' opening remarks. He laid out in detail what the plaintiffs will prove at trial: that the law would lead to hundreds of thousands of eligible voters losing their right to vote, that the law intentionally restricts the types of IDs that are acceptable for voting, and that obtaining an ID can be difficult for many eligible voters, even with the relaxed guidelines for the Department of State (DOS) ID.  The education campaign launched by the state about the voter ID law was confusing and inadequate, and it made no mention of the DOS ID. These problems, Rubin said, are "baked into the law itself and can't be fixed by better implementation."

Most important, said Rubin, the court will hear in-person and video testimony from a number of voters  who currently lack ID and face the risk of disenfranchisement if the law is not overturned - people like Nadine Marsh, an elderly woman who made three separate trips, two hours roundtrip, to obtain a voter ID.

Although the commonwealth and plaintiffs' experts don't agree on the precise number of voters at risk of disenfranchisement, Rubin said, both will testify that the number is in the hundreds of thousands. (Copies of the two expert reports are available online.)

The commonwealth should not be surprised at this number, Rubin added. The General Assembly had multiple opportunities to amend the law before passage to make it easier for voters to comply, including expanding the list of acceptable IDs, accepting expired IDs and IDs without expiration dates, allowing all employer photo IDs, and allowing a wider number of agencies, including municipalities, to print IDs.  Instead, despite warnings from the Dept. of State and the Dept. of Aging in a joint memo about the risk of disenfranchising vulnerable Pennsylvanians, the legislature and Gov. Corbett chose to make it harder to vote. 

The commonwealth's solution to the mounting evidence that some voters simply could not obtain a PennDOT ID was to create a new for-voting-only ID last year, known as the DOS ID. However, Rubin said, the evidence will show that the DOS ID implementation was fraught with problems.  A number of registered voters were rejected for the DOS ID - the card to which voters were supposed to have "liberal access."

The supposed "ease" of getting a DOS ID is also curtailed by the limited number of locations for obtaining the ID. Nine counties in Pennsylvania do not have a single PennDOT Driver's License Center, and an additional 22 counties have centers that are only open one or two days a week.  A system for "liberally available IDs should not require [voters] to leave the county," observed Rubin.

Tim Keating of the Attorney General's Office provided much briefer opening remarks for the commonwealth. He said that it is "not unduly burdensome to have some small segment of people go to PennDOT to have their photos taken." The "option of obtaining an ID is open to anyone who wants to vote."  He noted that in the 2008 Crawford case, in which Indiana's voter ID was upheld by the US Supreme Court, the court found that the need for voters to believe in the integrity of the voting process "outweighed the slight burden for some people to go out and get an ID."

Plaintiffs also presented two video depositions. 

The first was from Marian Baker, a 71-year-old grandmother from Reading who broke her leg several years ago and suffered a heart attack during surgery to repair it. On doctor's advice, she stopped driving. A Republican committee woman for eight years in the 1980s, Baker voted at her polling location every year except in 2008, when she was hospitalized. That year she cast an absentee ballot for "her man," John McCain.  She lives only a few blocks from her polling place.  Baker relies solely on her daughter and son-in-law, who have eight children and work long and erratic hours, for transportation. 

A regular voter since 1960, Baker last voted in this past November. On Election Day 2012, she presented her expired drivers' license as requested by the poll worker and was informed that she could not vote in the May election without current ID.

The last time Baker attempted to get her license renewed, she stood in line for four hours.  Due to her injury, she is now physically incapable of standing for extended periods of time.  Fearing she would not be able to vote unless she renewed her ID, she called PennDOT to see if they could make any special accommodations for her disability but was told bluntly that she'd have to stand in line "like everybody else." She asked if she could obtain an ID through the mail but was told no. Having been told by a poll worker that she needed ID to vote in 2013 and unaware that the preliminary injunction had been extended to cover the primary, Baker did not vote in the May 2013 election.

The final video of the day featured Mira Kanter Pripstein, a charming 93-year-old whose wry observances frequently caused laughter among the spectators in the courtroom. A life-long Philadelphian, she broke her leg in a fall five years ago, severely limiting her mobility.  In May 2013 she served as a poll worker at the polling place located in her building.  Pripstein cast her first vote for FDR and believes that voting "is what this country is based on."  Voting is "one of the few things I thought I'd always do," she said. But due to mobility issues and limited options for transportation, Pripstein admitted under questioning that she likely would not go to PennDOT to obtain the necessary ID. When probed about this admission by the commonwealth's attorney, she responded tartly, "I'd like you to come back and ask me that when you're 93." 

Transcripts of Baker's and Pripstein's testimony are available online

Court resumes tomorrow, Tuesday, July 16, at 9:30 a.m.  Scheduled witnesses include Bernard R. Siskin, plaintiffs' expert on the number of people without PennDOT IDs; Jonathan Marks, Commissioner of the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation, Pennsylvania Department of State; and Margaret G. Pennington, an elderly, long-time voter without ID who will be testifying in person.



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