Civil rights activists in Pennsylvania won a victory on Jan. 17 when the state’s Commonwealth Court judge, Bernard L. McGinley, struck down that portion of a repressive state law that requires voters to show photo identification at the polls.
The ruling followed nearly two years of litigation and hundreds of protests statewide by the bill’s opponents. The plaintiffs, including the NAACP, the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters and Philadelphia’s Homeless Advocacy Project, cited problems voters encountered while attempting to secure the state’s voting-only ID cards. Several registered voters failed to receive cards they had applied for prior to the 2012 election
In 2012, ten states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin — passed restrictive voter identification or ID laws. These laws require documentation often difficult or impossible to obtain in order for voters to secure a photo ID. Pennsylvania’s law was considered one of the strictest.
Restrictive voter ID legislation has been introduced in 34 states — representing a push back to the days of racist Jim Crow legislation. By making voting costlier and therefore harder for the old, the poor, married women and people of color, these laws constitute a new “poll tax.” In addition, more than 4.4 million formerly incarcerated people are permanently disenfranchised in all but two states.
Many of the Voter ID laws were based on “model” legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council. This right-wing, corporate-sponsored group helped develop Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law, used by vigilante George Zimmerman to justify killing African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Among the primary partners in ALEC are David and Charles Koch, also the major force behind recent efforts to resegregate public schools in North Carolina. Their father, Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries, one of the largest private corporations in the U.S., earned notoriety in the 1950s as a founding member of the neo-Nazi John Birch Society, a primary opponent of desegregation.
Law “fraught with illegalities and dubious authority”
Under the guise that it was intended to prevent “widespread” voter fraud, the Pennsylvania voter ID law required voters to produce a photo ID with a current expiration date in order to vote in the November 2012 elections. The voter ID law would have impacted 8.2 million voters, many who lack legally acceptable identification and the means to pay to secure it.
Individuals without a state driver’s license or U.S. passport would have had to produce original birth certificates or Social Security cards to secure an identification card from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. With just 71 PennDoT statewide licensing centers, many with limited hours, the court found that qualified voters faced an unreasonable barrier of transport and travel.
The American Civil Liberties Union initially challenged the law in August 2012 and requested an injunction to keep it from going into effect. On Oct. 2, 2012, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson blocked implementation of the law during the 2012 election but allowed it to stand pending a final court ruling.
In his Jan. 17 decision, McGinley described the voter ID law as “fraught with illegalities and dubious authority,” noting that there is “overwhelming evidence” that hundreds of thousands of qualified voters lack IDs that comply with the law. He found that the law “unreasonably burdens the right to vote.”
The state can appeal this ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. What is certain is that it will take more than a court ruling to defend this basic right to vote. Since this case began in 2012, higher court rulings have served to severely weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act, won through the Civil Rights movement.
As the economic crisis deepens, the capitalist ruling class in the U.S. continues to implement severe austerity measures. The failure to extend unemployment benefits is just one example.
In oppressed communities, where police are already an occupying force, discouraging people from exercising their right to vote serves to further suppress opposition to this economic assault.
The right to vote was won through decades of struggle. A new period of struggle is needed not only to defend this right but also to take on the racist and rotten system of capitalism. The outcome of this fight will also be determined in the streets, not the voting booths.