The eyes of the nation are on Pennsylvania this week as court hearings opposing the state’s controversial Voter ID law opened on Wednesday.
The law, which opponents say was nothing more than an attempt by Republican lawmakers to hand the commonwealth over to Mitt Romney in the presidential elections under the guise of fighting voter fraud, is being challenged on the grounds that it violates the state constitution. But that’s just one front on which the legislation is being attacked. This week the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division stepped into the ring and has ordered the state to prove the law does not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits voting requirements that would disproportionately impact minorities, which opponents of the law say it was designed to do.
“This law is not about protecting against voter fraud, it is about the very real, systematic disenfranchisement of approximately 750,000 individuals, mostly the poor, the elderly, students and racial minorities,” said Democratic State Senator Vincent Hughes during a rally in Harrisburg on Tuesday on the steps of the Capitol building. “It is voter suppression, plain and simple — and we must not stand for it. Let the people vote. The Voter ID law is about a Republican attempt to win the presidential election in November. The dubious claims of voter fraud made by the Republican majority and Governor Tom Corbett simply do not exist. That has been proven.”
From the very beginning the law, which was supposed to be a firewall against voter fraud, came under fire from Democratic leaders who maintained that the legislation was always meant to stack the upcoming November elections in favor of the Republicans. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler and Governor Tom Corbett quickly signed off on it once it passed the Senate and Pennsylvania House of Representatives, making the state one of 16 to have such a law. The vote in the House was split exactly on party lines with three Republicans, Reps. Christopher Ross, Marguerite Quinn and Kurt Masser stepping across the aisle to join the Democratic opposition.
The law requires that a registered voter produce either a valid state driver’s license or non-driver’s license identification card. Other acceptable forms of identification would be a valid student’s ID, passport or military identification. One of the problems, opponents say, is many elderly voters don’t have and cannot produce documentation of their birth — a requirement for obtaining the state identification card. Many of those individuals have been registered voters for years and would be turned away from exercising their constitutional right to vote. Many female voters could also be adversely affected since their married names aren’t the names on their birth certificates.
Hughes said that attorneys for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania allege there have been no known cases of voter fraud committed in the state. He also said that when Corbett was state attorney general he never prosecuted one single case of voter fraud.
ACLU attorneys think they have a strong enough case to block the law. In May, shortly after Corbett signed the bill into law, the ACLU, the Public Interest Law Center, the Advancement Project and the law firm of Arnold & Porter filed a law suit against it. The case, Applewhite v. Pennsylvania, argues that the law violated the state constitution, and in their brief, outline several points that will be expounded upon during proceedings:
• The commonwealth now admits that it cannot identify even a single instance in which a person voted improperly in Pennsylvania because they were able to impersonate someone else at the polling place.
• The commonwealth's new estimates of voters without acceptable ID — about three quarters of a million people — are understated based on the commonwealth's own records and based on survey evidence gathered by petitioners, and that the actual number is that one million or more eligible voters do not have the necessary ID to vote in November.
• The commonwealth has not adequately informed the public that they need to undertake a time consuming task simply in order to vote as they have in years past. An estimated 37 percent of residents are not even aware of the voter ID law or believe there is no photo ID law. More importantly, the vast majority of people who do not have valid ID under the law mistakenly believe that they have acceptable ID (13.1 percent of total eligible voters and 11.8 percent of people who voted for president in 2008).
"George Washington didn't need a voter ID card,” said State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams during the Harrisburg rally. “John Adams didn't need a voter ID card. Ronald Reagan didn't need a voter ID card. If it wasn't good enough for the Founding Fathers, it's not good enough for me."
Commonwealth officials formally acknowledged in a stipulation agreement that there’s been no reported in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania - and there isn’t likely to be in November. The agreement also states that Pennsylvania “will not offer any evidence in this action that in-person voter fraud has in fact occurred in Pennsylvania and elsewhere” or even argue “that in-person voter fraud is likely to occur in November 2012 in the absense of the Photo ID law.” Neither Governor Corbett nor the state attorney general will testify during the hearings, per the agreement.
The United States Department of Justice has also jumped into the legal battle, ordering Commonwealth officials to prove that the law does not violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; a law forbidding any voting requirements that would disproportionately affect minority voters. In a letter sent this past Monday to acting secretary of the Commonwealth, Carol Aichele, the DOJ requested the state turnover the complete voter registration list, including voter history and race of registered voters and the current Pennsylvania driver license and ID list.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Acts states that: No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.
The Justice Department also wants any documents supporting Gov. Tom Corbett's March 2012 statement that 99 percent of Pennsylvania's eligible voters already have acceptable photo ID. The state has 30 days to comply. Similar laws in South Carolina and Texas were successfully blocked by the Justice Department.
“The stipulation says that the state is ‘not aware of’ any incidents of voter impersonation, which the Voter ID law is allegedly designed to address, and that the state is not prepared to present any evidence in support of the existence of such fraud. This should end the argument that the Voter ID law would prevent any voter fraud in Pennsylvania,” said State Senator Daylin Leach in a press release. Leach also said that since there is no evidence of voter fraud, Republican State Representative Mike Turzai told the truth when he said at a recent partisan event that the law would help Romney win Pennsylvania.
“Also, filings indicate the Commonwealth will argue that the court should adopt a rational-basis standard for reviewing the law's Constitutionality,” Leach continued. “Anyone who has completed a semester of law school will know this means the administration, incredibly, believes that voting is not a fundamental right. The only remaining justification for the law is to prevent future incidents of fraud, of which there is also no evidence. That’s quite a thin argument to justify a law that disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of voters, and this proves that Representative Turzai was telling the truth. This law is about nothing more than helping Republicans win the election this November.”
If you’re a partisan party politician, you don’t have to disgrace your office to elicit a gasp of horror from your colleagues. You just have to tell the truth — even by accident.
House Majority Leader Mike Turzai of Allegheny County spouted just such an inconvenient truth last Saturday at a meeting of the Republican State Committee in Hershey. Turzai was thumping his chest over the Republican-led accomplishments of the state House and Senate when he got caught up in the moment.
“Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it’s done,” Turzai boasted to the wildly enthusiastic crowd. “First pro-life legislation — abortion facility regulations — in 22 years, done. Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”
Took all of about 30 minutes before Turzai’s statement ping-ponged around the blogosphere, and both parties launched themselves into full outrage mode.
Democrats’ eyes lit up like a baseball player who sees a big, fat, slow pitch coming at him. The Republicans had thrown them weak cheese, and they were going to hit this one way, way out of the park. It was practically a full-on admission of the GOP agenda to disenfranchise voters, alienate women and repeal those pesky laws that prevent good, decent, white folks from shooting minorities any time they feel like it.
“It’s the smoking gun!” cried Sen. Daylin Leach of Montgomery County.
“We told you so,” said Philly Sen. Vincent Hughes.
While both senators are right, it doesn’t make a bit of difference. The Republicans can, and did, come back with the defense that Turzai was speaking to a partisan crowd at a private event, and Leach and Hughes are angry, desperate liberals grasping at political straws in order to defame a righteous, God-fearing American patriot like Mike Turzai.
In the end, Turzai’s unguarded honesty probably won’t serve Democrats as a rallying cry, but it should serve very well as a call to action.
Have a look at the GOP platform. Check out their ideas, and check out their history. On the voter ID law, for example. Logic would dictate that a political party’s primary interest would be in getting as many people out to vote on Election Day as possible. After all, the more people who vote, the more people who vote for our candidate, right?
Wrong. It’s the Democrats who knock their brains out every election cycle with get out the vote efforts and massive voter registration drives. The Republicans would just as soon not bother. In fact, the voter ID law is in direct opposition to those efforts. They need as few of us — and by us, I mean everyone who isn’t a middle-aged, white, male millionaire — to come to the polls as possible, because a sufficient number of Democratic votes can negate the millions of dollars they’re pouring into this campaign.
The fact that they’re trying every trick in the book to keep you away from the voting booth is proof positive they know how important your individual vote can be. And that is all the incentive you need when deciding on Election Day whether to get up and go to the polls. The GOP knows, and now you know, that a low turnout — or at least a low turnout of minorities — is Romney’s best path to victory.
The GOP agenda on the Castle Doctrine is equally transparent. The doctrine has very little to do with the Second Amendment — that is, there’s nothing in the Castle Doctrine which restricts your ability to buy guns. It simply lifts a few restrictions on when you can use them, and adds a legal get-out-of-jail-free card if you say, “I was afraid for my life!” when you shoot a Black person who happens to be walking home with a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles.
Don’t even get me started on abortion. The fact that the party who wants government out of your private life so willingly invites government intrusion into your bedroom is so hypocritical it defies common sense. Let me get this straight: You support the death penalty, you favor unlimited access to firearms and the unfettered ability to shoot people you don’t like, but your catch phrase is “Respecting the sanctity of life?” Please.
Turzai was right about one thing: You don’t have to actually vote for Romney to ensure his win in November. You just have to not vote at all.
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.
State lawmakers should reject a bill that would lead to an increase in state takeovers of Pennsylvania school districts veering toward financial collapse.
The Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee recently approved a bill along partisan lines that would replace the case-by-case approach used in the past for taking over struggling districts.
The bill would suspend the right to strike while a district is insolvent and have the state secretary of education appoint chief recovery officers to oversee local school districts. The chief recovery officer would be given broad powers to push districts toward such controversial measures as converting schools to charters, handing them over to education management organizations and cutting teacher’s pay.
The proposal would immediately affect four school districts: Duquesne, Harrisburg, York and Chester Upland, which sued the state in federal court in January after it threatened to shut down due to lack of money.
The bill has the support of Gov. Tom Corbett and most Republicans in the Senate where it is expected to pass. It is not known if House Republicans will also support the bill.
The proposal is a bad idea.
The bill appears to a thinly disguised attempt to bust teacher’s unions and hand schools to private operators in districts already struggling because of deep cuts in state aid and shrinking local tax bases.
Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, said that the only place the state will find savings to improve district’s finances is by forcing staff to take pay cuts — ensuring teacher turnover and making it more difficult to attract talented teachers to work for lower pay in a challenging district.
“We’re completely destroying the standards of the profession, and we’re completely destroying the opportunity of our kids to have a quality education by doing that,” Leach said.
Pennsylvania lawmakers are proposing a bill that is similar to the 2001 state takeover of Philadelphia public schools which has done little to eradicate the district’s financial, academic and violence problems.