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Hearing begins in Harrisburg on new voter-ID law

HARRISBURG - In her 93 years, Philadelphian Viviette Applewhite said, she had missed her chance to vote for president just once - and that was because she could not find her polling place despite spending 12 hours looking.

HARRISBURG - In her 93 years, Philadelphian Viviette Applewhite said, she had missed her chance to vote for president just once - and that was because she could not find her polling place despite spending 12 hours looking.

This fall might mark the second time, Applewhite testified Wednesday in Commonwealth Court, because a new state law says she must bring photo identification to the polls in order to vote. And thanks to a purse-snatcher, she hasn't got much in the way of photo ID.

Applewhite, who came to court in a motorized wheelchair and testified of having once marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said voting "gives me the right to help people and myself."

She was one of the first witnesses in a state case that has drawn national attention. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and other groups are asking a judge to knock the state's tough new voter-ID law off the books before it can be used in the Nov. 6 election.

Attorneys for Applewhite and nine other voters argued Wednesday that the law violated the state constitution by imposing unfair burdens on voters and could disenfranchise as many as a million or more Pennsylvanians - especially those who are old, poor, or disabled.

The lawyers also disputed the law's stated purpose of preventing vote fraud, and repeatedly pointed to state officials' written stipulation that they planned to present no evidence of in-person voter impersonation, either in Pennsylvania or elsewhere, nor evidence that "in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absence of the photo-ID law."

That leaves only one explanation for the Republican-backed law, the civil liberties groups contend: to help sway elections in favor of one political party, in a presidential election year and in a state often described as a key battleground.

In court, ACLU lawyers pointed to a widely quoted June 23 remark by State House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) at a Republican Party meeting. Turzai said the new voter-ID law "is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." Turzai's spokesman later said he simply meant the law leveled the playing field for GOP presidential candidates.

"The real purpose of this law is partisan advantage," said David Gersch, a Washington-based lawyer representing Applewhite and the other plaintiffs.

Gersch added: "We will show that the integrity of the electoral process is not enhanced by turning away people at the ballot box."

The state's lawyer, Senior Deputy Attorney General Patrick Cawley, argued that the law was not burdensome. He said having a photo ID has become "a widespread part of American life," adding that voters have been given ample time and opportunity to obtain the necessary identification to vote.

Cawley said the Department of State, which oversees Pennsylvania elections, was conducting a massive public-education campaign to let all voters know what was required. That campaign will include a blast of radio, television, and print ads, as well as letters notifying voters of the new law.

He noted, too, that the state Department of Transportation is providing free photo IDs to those who need one. And because those IDs require some voters to dig up several official documents, such as birth certificates, he pointed out what the state announced Friday - a new voting-only ID card that would require less paperwork to obtain.

"A great many hurdles have already been removed from the path of voters who want to vote," Cawley argued.

He said writing laws to regulate elections was very much within the legislature's purview. And he downplayed the significance his adversaries were attaching to the state's written stipulation that it would not offer evidence of past voter fraud.

That stipulation, Cawley said, merely acknowledges that the legislature needed no proof of such crimes to pass the new law.

"We are not here to judge the wisdom of the voter-ID law," said Cawley, adding that the burden was on civil liberties groups to prove that the law would cause "irreparable harm."

The decision on whether to enjoin the law before the presidential election lies with Judge Robert Simpson, who reminded everyone at the start of what is expected to be five to seven days of hearings that he would not have the last word.

He said he expected to decide by mid-August - and also expected his decision to be appealed to the state Supreme Court. "Take heart," said Simpson. "I am not the last level of review."

He heard testimony from six voters who said they faced real hurdles in getting the photo IDs the law requires.

Cawley asked witnesses if they knew their Social Security numbers; each did. That would help them obtain the new ID cards the state is promising. The plaintiffs' lawyers asked each if they had received notification of the new law from the state. Only one had.

Applewhite said she was born Viviette Brooks but got a new last name when the father of her boyfriend for 22 years, Thomas Applewhite of Mississippi, adopted her.

"They wanted to make sure I got the property and things when everybody died," she testified.

Her lawyers said Applewhite would not be able to obtain a PennDot photo-ID card because her purse was snatched several years ago - and along with it, her Social Security card, a photo ID from the State of Virginia, and her birth certificate.

She testified that she had spent five years trying to replace the stolen documents and that only her birth certificate had been found.

Laila T. Stones, also of Philadelphia, testified that she was born in 1959 in Virginia, but that her birth was not registered there.

When she tried to obtain her birth certificate from Virginia officials, Stones said, "they told me I don't exist."

She said she called the Department of State to explain the situation, "but they gave me the runaround." Stones said she intended to go to the polls this fall even if she couldn't get the proper identification.

"Because if they take my vote away," she said, "then who am I?"

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