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Without a Photo ID, Some PA Voters Won’t Count in November Under Strict Law

July 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Pennsylvania Transportation Department estimates that approximately 9 percent of registered voters do not have state-issued photo IDs. Under that state's voter ID law, those 758,000 voters will not be able to cast their ballot, come November. Ray Suarez reports on the implications of this law for the 2012 elections.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And back to the campaign.

This election story is from the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Ray Suarez has our report.

RAY SUAREZ: Sixty-year-old Wilola Lee of Philadelphia says she’s voted in almost every presidential election since the ’70s. She’s a retired employee of the city’s board of education who spent several years working at her local polling station.

But, in November, under the voter identification law passed in Pennsylvania, Lee may not be able to cast a ballot. The new law requires all eligible voters to have a state-approved form of identification issued by PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. And the requirements for approval are strict.

Wilola Lee already has a number of identification cards.

WILOLA LEE, Pennsylvania voter: This is the only I.D. that I really have to identify myself, and it’s the Social Security card. Then I have the personal Pennsylvania I.D. card.

RAY SUAREZ: But Lee doesn’t have one document required by the law to get a state-issued I.D., her original birth certificate. It was destroyed in a fire.

WILOLA LEE: I have been trying to get my birth certificate for the past 10 years, over 10 years. So I did send to Georgia, where I was born at, in order to obtain a birth certificate. But they sent me a delayed birth certificate without a seal on it, and come to find out it’s just only an application.

RAY SUAREZ: Lee is not alone. The state’s most recent numbers show more than 750,000 registered voters in Pennsylvania lack the identification required to vote under the new law.

When the Pennsylvania legislature passed what critics and supporters alike call one of the toughest photo voter I.D. laws in the country, it set off a ferocious debate. There are some who say that this is really a law in search of a crime, while others say it’s doing nothing less than protecting the integrity of every election here.

Representative Daryl Metcalfe is the sponsor of the voter I.D. law, House Bill 934.

STATE REP. DARYL METCALFE (R-Penn.): This doesn’t disenfranchise anybody. And I think it should be insulting to any American to say that you might be disenfranchised because you don’t have the ability to get a photo I.D.

That’s legislation I have been working on for about the last 10 years to ensure that we have this very commonsense policy in place, so that when one shows up to vote, they prove that they are who they claim to be.

RAY SUAREZ: But the state has stipulated that there are no documented cases of fraud at the polls in Pennsylvania. Yesterday, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department opened an investigation into the law to determine whether it complies with the Voting Rights Act.

And four civil rights groups are challenging the voter I.D. law in Pennsylvania’s commonwealth court. In hearings beginning tomorrow, the groups will seek a temporary injunction to the law, arguing it will disenfranchise specific groups of voters who are not likely to have acceptable identification, among them, minorities, seniors, and the urban poor.

David Gersch of the Washington, D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter is one of the attorneys arguing the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, including Wilola Lee.

DAVID GERSCH, attorney: There’s no plan for getting hundreds of thousands of people the proper I.D. They can say it’s available, but they have no plan for actually accomplishing that.

RAY SUAREZ: Gersch and his team will allege the law is a partisan evidence to suppress Democratic votes. As evidence, they will introduce comments by Republican House Leader Mike Turzai. In a recent speech to the state’s Republican committee, Turzai’s added the voter I.D. law to a checklist of Republican victories.

MIKE TURZAI, Pennsylvania statehouse majority leader: Voter I.D., which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: Thirty-three states have passed laws requiring I.D. for voting. Of these, only five Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee, and Georgia, have strict photo I.D. requirements.

In all five of these states, the laws were Republican-led initiatives. In Pennsylvania, opponents and supporters of the law are mounting a vigorous campaign to educate voters before Election Day and pressure public officials to relax the identification requirements.

Last week, state officials announced a plan to offer free identification cards to every one of these voters in time for Election Day, as long as they can provide a birth date, Social Security number and two proofs of residency.

But these cards are not be available until the end of August, and details of how they will be rolled out remain unclear.

Carol Aichele is secretary of the commonwealth and a spokesperson for the law.

People on the other side of the question have maintained that this is really a regulation in search of an infraction or a prevention in search of a crime. How do you respond to that?

CAROL AICHELE, Pennsylvania secretary of the commonwealth: I think people say, what’s the big deal about showing an I.D.? I have to show I.D. to buy cough medicine over the counter.

RAY SUAREZ: Joe Certaine is the president of the Pennsylvania Voter I.D. Coalition, part of a nonpartisan government watchdog group called the Committee of 70. The coalition is leading an effort to educate voters on the new law and Certaine says it’s no easy task.

JOE CERTAINE, Pennsylvania Voter I.D. Coalition: There are all kinds of problems associated with the implementation of this law that wasn’t considered by the legislature when they drafted the law and when it was signed by Governor Corbett.

We are trying to do what we can across the commonwealth, but starting here in Pennsylvania — in Philadelphia, to make sure that those people get the assistance that they need in order to be able to comply with the law, regardless of our feelings about the law.

RAY SUAREZ: Voter rights advocates say they’re not opposed to a law requiring from identification to vote. It’s the complexity of the Pennsylvania law they object to.

For some voters, they say, acquiring the right identification is not as simple as a visit to the PennDOT center. A study by the nonpartisan Brennan Center found nearly half-a-million eligible voters in 10 states with strict voter I.D. laws live in households without vehicles and reside at least 10 miles from an office that issues I.D. more than two days a week.

In an effort to educate voters on the new law, Pennsylvania has launched a $5 million outreach campaign.

CAROL AICHELE: We think we’re up to the task, and we’re aiming to make sure that all 8.2 [million] registered voters in Pennsylvania have photo I.D.

RAY SUAREZ: But voting rights advocates say they’re frantically racing to reach every at-risk voter in the short run-up to Election Day. They’re also trying to coordinate efforts for voters like Wilola Lee, who’s still trying to get a valid voter I.D. card.

WILOLA LEE: If I don’t get the birth certificate to get the proper photo I.D., I won’t be able to vote.

RAY SUAREZ: No matter what happens in court tomorrow, one side or the other will almost certainly appeal. And President Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns will be prepared with legions of lawyers on standby if Pennsylvania ends up being a close contest on November 6.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In this week’s Political Checklist, Ray talked about what he saw in the battleground state with the NewsHour’s political editor Christina Bellantoni. That’s on our Politics page.