Pa. voter ID judge hears from frustrated voters

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by Marc Levy
Associated Press Writer
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A judge weighing whether to stop a new Pennsylvania law requiring voters to show photo identification heard testimony Thursday from people who told of making numerous trips to driver’s license centers to confront clerks confused by a bureaucratic maze of IDs, requirements and paperwork.

After being rejected for a photo ID on her fourth trip to a driver’s license center, Doris Clark, 68, finally screamed: “I’m handicapped. I’ve done all I can do and I’m not going to vote.”

She told the judge she then threatened to report how she’d been treated, prompting clerks in the Philadelphia center to sit down with her and help her get an ID.

She said the reasons she couldn’t get an ID on each visit were varied: She didn’t have a birth certificate, a letter from the Social Security Administration was more than 30 days old, or her married name didn’t match the name on her birth certificate.

But Clark’s story was similar to others Thursday, some of whom received crucial help from people with third-party organizations, including a labor union and a community improvement group in Pittsburgh that had deployed people to driver’s license centers to help voters get an ID.
Jessica Hockenbury said she finally got an ID card only after a clerk told her that a voting-only ID card was not being distributed anymore.

The complicated rules for getting an ID also became a stumbling block for Lakeisha Pannell because driver’s license center clerks had trouble finding her name in the voter registration database, she said.

Opponents of the new law want an injunction stopping it from taking effect in the Nov. 6 presidential election, and hope the testimony persuades Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson that the state is not making photo IDs easy enough to access or that the requirement poses a risk of someone losing the ability to vote.

Simpson has hinted that an injunction is possible, but said he would not issue his decision in court Thursday, the second and final day of testimony in the latest chapter of a legal challenge to the 6-month-old law.

Simpson is under orders from the state Supreme Court to halt the law by next Tuesday — just five weeks before the election — if he finds the state has not met the law’s promise of providing free and easy access to a photo ID or if he believes it will prevent any registered voters from casting a ballot.

The law, among the toughest in the nation, has sparked debate over voting rights and has become a partisan lightning rod in the contest between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for Pennsylvania’s prized 20 electoral votes.

State officials say they believe the number of people who need an ID to vote is small — the state had issued less than 11,000 free IDs as of Monday — and, after several stumbling attempts to comply with the law, they contend that a new form of voting-only ID and a streamlined process to qualify for one should comply with the Supreme Court’s directions.

But opponents of the law say the Legislature intended that photo ID cards be freely available in March, when the law passed, not with just a few weeks left before the election. In addition, they contend that many people still do not know about the law and say that the state’s performance up until now ensures that some people will be prevented from exercising their right to vote, particularly young adults, the poor, minorities, the elderly and the disabled.

In the meantime, the state has pressed ahead, sending postcards about the law to registered voters, airing TV and radio commercials and posting ads on billboards and mass transit vehicles.

Simpson initially denied the request for a preliminary injunction in August, saying the plaintiffs did not show that “disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable.” But after an appeal, the Supreme Court directed him to use a much tougher standard for tolerating voter disenfranchisement.

The prior law required identification only for people voting in a polling place for the first time and it allowed non-photo documents such as utility bills or bank statements. The new law requires each voter to show a particular form of photo ID, such as a driver’s license, passport, active duty military identification, nursing home ID or college student ID.

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