The Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearing on Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, over the state’s voter ID law, was serious enough that it drew the presence of Ben Jealous, the president of the national NAACP. After ninety minutes of arguing about the fundamental right to vote before the state’s six supreme court justices, Jealous said he was “cautiously optimistic” that civil rights groups might prevail in the case.
Perhaps cautiously pessimistic, I couldn’t help but think, But what if they don’t? When I asked Jealous this, he said:
“We will have volunteers throughout the state demanding that everyone who is eligible to vote and who has a right to vote will be able to vote. And then we will make sure every provisional ballot is counted and make sure the polls stay open and we will fight to make sure the polls stay open as long as necessary.”
In other words, the NAACP, and a lot of civil rights and liberties organizations like them, would be absorbing the burden imposed by the Pennsylvania law, which mandates specific forms of photo ID in order to vote.
A lot was covered in that ninety-minute hearing, and I strongly recommend that you read Ari Berman and Philadelphia City Paper’s Daniel Denvir for the minutiae of what transpired in the court session.
There was a lot of argument about what constituted “the fundamental right to vote” as guaranteed by Pennsylvania’s constitution, and also how many people would be disenfranchised by the law. But at root, this hearing was about burdens, and as Gang Starr once asked, who was gonna take the weight? There were many questions about which Pennsylvanians would have to carry the extraneous burdens of this law in order to vote, and who would not. There was also debate about whether the burden was on the state or on voters to prove that those extraneous burdens even existed. When supreme court justices asked why they should overturn the lower court ruling—a huge ask—the plaintiff’s lawyer David Gersch said that “the fact people are burdened by this law triggers” their intervention.
And yet while the photo voter ID law was created on the premise that it would protect against voter fraud or unearth it, the state legislators never had the burden of having to prove that fraud actually exists—evidence of it was never entered in the court record. Governor Corbett’s lawyer Alfred Putnam Jr. said yesterday that the Commonwealth didn’t need to prove it (Also read great analysis by Pittsburgh City Paper’s Chris Potter). Yet voters now have the burden—voters of color disproportionately—of complying with the law. It’s as if voters are guilty of the potential of fraud until proven innocent by an ID card.
Jealous, who enlisted the NAACP in a rally held outside the courtroom, was asked by reporters who would be hurt by the law. He said, “We fight everyday to motivate people who until the day before may not have been thinking about voting. Well this puts an entire bureaucracy between them and their vote. So now they may not be able [to vote] if they wake up that morning and decide to vote for the first time. this hurts people of color, it disproportionately hurts poor people, and it hurts working people of all colors.”