PHILADELPHIA — At age 93, Viviette Applewhite proudly lives on her own in a high-rise apartment just a few blocks from where she was born. A widow, she has never driven a car, but she has had many jobs, including work as a welder during World War II. She marched withMartin Luther King Jr. in Georgia.
She cast her first vote for PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt. On election day four years ago, Applewhite went across the street to vote. "I was waiting there when they opened the door," she said. "I didn't vote for [Barack] Obamabecause he was black. I voted for him because he was a Democrat."
But her record of faithfully voting for Democrats will be more difficult to maintain, thanks to a strict voter identification law adopted this year by Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled Legislature. Now she is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the new law.
Applewhite is among more than 186,000 registered voters who lack a valid driver's license in this heavily Democratic city. Many of them are minorities. And to vote in Pennsylvania in November, they will need to produce a government-issued ID or driver's license.
That could have national implications. Obama almost certainly needs to win in Pennsylvania to be reelected, and political analysts say the Democrat cannot win the state without piling up large margins in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the two cities where the new voter ID rule would hit the hardest.
In March, Pennsylvania became the ninth state to require voters to show a particular photo identification card. Similar new laws in Texas, South Carolina and Wisconsin have been blocked by the Justice Department or by state judges.
Next week, lawyers for Applewhite and nine other longtime voters will ask a state judge in Harrisburg to halt the photo ID law as a denial of the fundamental right to vote. The outcome of the lawsuit could affect not just the voting rights of several hundred thousand Pennsylvanians but also who wins the presidential election.
When the voter ID bill was being debated, state officials assured Pennsylvania legislators that its impact would be minimal. Only 1% of its voters — or about 89,000 people — did not have the required ID, they said.
The new law says a proper ID card must be issued by the government or a nursing home, and it must contain a name, photo and expiration date. Those who do not have such a card and have not driven before must go to a state driver's license office and present four forms of identification, such as a birth certificate and Social Security card.
On July 3, state officials sent out a news release to "confirm the vast majority of registered voters have the identification that can be used for voting." But its own analysis of state driving records revealed that 9% of those on its voting rolls — 758,939 in all — could not be found in the state Department of Transportation database. In Philadelphia alone, about 18% did not have the proper identification, according to this analysis.
"If the election were held today, we would have more than 100,000 of our voters who could not vote," said Stephanie Singer, chairwoman of Philadelphia's elections commission. "It's a cynical attempt by the Republican leadership to steal the election. And absolutely it could sway the outcome."
That view of the law's importance is not unique to Democrats. Last month, state House Republican leader Mike Turzai, who represents the north suburbs of Pittsburgh, ticked off this year's accomplishments before a meeting of state Republicans. "Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: Done," he said.
"His message was that only citizens and registered voters should be allowed to vote," said Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for Turzai. "For the first time in a long time, this [law] means there will be a relatively level playing field because election fraud in Pennsylvania will be curtailed."
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, said the July 3 report did not mean 758,000 voters lacked the proper identification. Some of them may have moved or died, or they may have other acceptable identification such as a U.S. passport or a military identification card, he said.
"I encourage people of Pennsylvania who do not have a photo ID for voter ID to go get one. And we're trying to make it as easy as we can," he told The Times. "There's a huge voter education effort going on."
To obtain a voter ID, most Pennsylvanians will need to visit an office of the state Department of Transportation — sometimes more than once. The requirement for a card with an expiration date has tripped up many, including municipal employees, state college students and veterans, whose photo ID cards usually do not have expiration dates.
Corbett said many of the state's universities were updating their ID cards to comply with the law. Nursing homes and assisted-living centers are authorized to make photo ID cards for their residents, he said.
City election officials, however, are not authorized to do the same. "We would love to go through the neighborhoods with a mobile van and a camera and help registered voters get a valid ID. But we are not authorized to issue IDs," Singer said. "We have to tell people to go to Penn DOT."
Wilola Lee, a 60-year-old former school employee, has made three unsuccessful trips to the Department of Transportation. She has a small pile of identification cards, including a voter registration card and her former school ID, which is now outdated. She was told she needed to show her birth certificate, but since she was born at home in rural Georgia, she was unable to obtain one.
Frustrated, she joined the lawsuit. "I have voted my entire life. Never missed. And I'm really upset they are trying to stop me from voting this time," she said.
Applewhite also has a thick wad of identification cards, including from Medicare and her bank and a voter registration card. She has a city transit pass with her photo, but it is not deemed acceptable under the law. After many inquiries, she obtained a copy of her birth certificate through the mail.
But she was then told she had a problem because her name on the birth certificate did not match her married name on her other ID cards.
"I never had a problem with voting before this. If they wanted my Social Security number, I know it by heart," she said. She says she is determined to obtain the proper identification, no matter how many times she must travel by bus to the Department of Transportation.
"A lot of people in this building don't have the right ID, and they have given up. I see them in the elevator and I tell them, 'You've got to keep trying,' " she said.
Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.
Pennsylvania's strict voter ID law faces ACLU lawsuit
The law could stop hundreds of thousands of voters, many of them minorities, from casting ballots despite their efforts to obtain an ID. The outcome may affect the presidential election.
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