The plight of Viviette Applewhite, 93, was not enough to sway Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson. Neither was the case of the Advancement Project, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and others made on her behalf.
On Wednesday, Simpson let stand a law that would require strict and specific forms of photo voter ID in a battleground state crucial for both parties in November.
His is an argument I’ve often heard from those supporting the wave of voter ID laws passed in state legislatures following the 2010 midterm elections that turned many over to GOP majorities. You need an ID to drive a car or buy a beer, or as Linda A. Kerns, co-chair of the southeastern-Pennsylvania chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association, wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "If requiring photo ID discriminates, then shouldn't we abolish it and drive, buy guns, get on airplanes and open bank accounts on the honor system?”
Applewhite – who was a shipyard welder during World War II and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. -- doesn’t drive or buy guns, and the purse containing her Social Security card was stolen. It’s also a big deal to Laila Stones, who testified that because there was no record of her 1959 midwife-assisted birth there, Virginia told her, in effect, that she didn’t exist. Voting, she said, makes her feel “whole."
How did the country become so careless about something so sacred? When did participating in democracy become a right U.S. citizens have to earn? Why do we ignore or accept partisan braying, such as Pennsylvania House majority leader Mike Turzai’s boast – when listing GOP accomplishments – that “voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done"?
As the case was being deliberated, I spoke with Penda Hair co-director and co-founder of the Advancement Project, which advocates for increased voter participation for low-income and minority communities. She was right, it turned out, to call predictions about the outcome “risky,” though she was confident then that the case presented against voter ID, starting with the testimony of Applewhite, Stones and others was strong.
In my story for The Root, Hair pointed to analysis that put the number of eligible Pennsylvania voters without required ID well over a million and to the state’s admission that it has no effective mechanism in place to close the gap. Hair also reminded me that "through the history of America, it's always been a fight to expand access to the democratic process."
At the first National Tea Party conference in Nashville in February 2010, I listened as former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, anxious to limit the franchise, suggested a civics literacy test, since, he said, voters who "could not spell the word vote or say it in English" were responsible for putting a "committed Socialist ideologue” in the White House. Convention organizer Judson Phillips praised Tancredo and said those Americans "didn't understand what they were voting for."
We’ve tried that before, with poll taxes and literacy tests, quizzes that asked how many bubbles in a bar of soap, discriminatory exercises mocking the Constitution that many of the biggest supporters of protecting the vote swear they are defending.
I didn’t have to read history to learn about the struggle. When I was growing up, my mother lived a life of political action, focused on protecting the vote as she served as one of those tireless election-day workers, checking polling places and precincts, putting representatives of each party in place to make sure the process ran smoothly and fairly. She worked the neighborhood, too, encouraging everyone to register and vote. (She was a Lincoln Republican, by the way, who lived just long enough to be saddened by her party’s demonization of mythic welfare queens and free-loaders, a tactic she said ignored the majority, the African-American working class she was proud to be a part of.)
Yet for all of that patriotic service, my mother might have had problems with an ID, since she didn’t drive or drink beer. Late in life, when she needed a passport to travel to Rome to see the Pope and fulfill her good Catholic lady dream, it almost didn’t happen. Because she was born at home, delivered by a midwife who waited a few days to report the birth, the date she always celebrated as her birthday didn’t jibe with the one in official records.
To assume that everyone has a photo ID is to ignore the lives that many have lived, productive, tax-paying, voting lives that never before needed validation. Should the elderly, the poor, the young and minorities, people who have worked hard and given so much, now have to prove they belong?
When I recently interviewed Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D), he was thinking less about the Pennsylvania law than how to get the word out so his city’s voters “won't have a problem and that they are not discouraged when it's time to actually get out and vote." But he did wonder, "Why are we now, all these years later, trying to erect new barriers, new obstacles, new challenges, to people wanting the right to vote?"
Viviette Applewhite has to listen to folks who relentlessly decry big government urge voters to trust the government to carry out a law so complicated Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele testified she was unsure of what was actually in it. Applewhite has to hear people who say government spends too much insist that spending on a voter-ID law is not just fine, but necessary.
She may see the humor in it, but I’m pretty sure she’s not laughing.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3