(The Root) — Though he was making an early campaign swing through Charlotte, N.C., a city he'll revisit for the Democratic convention in September, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's mind was also on the battle over a voter-ID law going on in his Pennsylvania home. "We are very concerned about disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of voters," he told The Root.
"Many of us can't figure out what this is really about, since we have no documentation of any in-person voter fraud having taken place in Pennsylvania in anyone's memory," Nutter said. "We filed an amicus brief, and there are other people fighting on those issues. I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not going to be in court."
Last Thursday, the day of closing arguments in the case challenging the law, Nutter said that his job, as long as the law is on the books, is to make sure that people have the needed ID "so that they won't have a problem and that they are not discouraged when it's time to actually get out and vote." In Philadelphia, he said, that includes printing up materials to put in city government buildings, recreation centers and libraries.
Veteran civil rights lawyer Penda Hair is a co-director and co-founder, in 1999, of the Advancement Project, which strives to increase "democratic participation in low-income and minority communities by removing obstacles to voter participation" as part of its stated goal. The project is part of the legal team — along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and Arnold & Porter LLP — fighting the Pennsylvania law (signed by GOP Gov. Tom Corbett in March) on behalf of individual voters who may not have the necessary specific forms of identification. A ruling is expected by Aug. 13.
"I think it's risky to make any prediction when you're dealing with a case in court," Hair told The Root, but "the plaintiffs put on an incredibly strong case. I can't imagine a stronger case against photo ID than this one."
That case included analysis from Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist who placed the number of eligible Pennsylvania voters without necessary ID at 1.3 million, far above the state's estimate; an admission that the state has no process in place that could provide photo IDs to close the number of voters who need them; and Pennsylvania Secretary of State Carol Aichele's answer to a question on the details of the law. "I don't know what the law says," Aichele said on the stand.
Entered into evidence was a statement made by Pennsylvania's House majority leader, Republican Mike Turzai, in a speech to the GOP state committee. When ticking off a list of Republican accomplishments, Turzai said, "Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done." Despite later backtracking from his camp, the comment was interpreted to be revealing of the law's true intent. It's "what we had suspected and had been saying," Hair said, "stripping away all of the pretense of any kind of motive other than a partisan motive."
Most moving, Hair said, was the personal testimony of those affected by the law, including lead plaintiff Viviette Applewhite, 93, who described obstacles to her obtaining acceptable ID, and Laila Stones, born in 1959 in Virginia with a midwife assisting. When Stones attempted to get her birth certificate, the state told her that it had no record of her existence. Recalling Stones' words, Hair said Stones testified that "if she were not allowed to vote, it would make her feel as though she's not whole."
Republican supporters of the law remain convinced that it is needed to prevent fraud, although the state conceded before the court hearing that it knew of no cases of in-person voter fraud in Pennsylvania.
In an opinion piece in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer, Linda A. Kerns, co-chair of the southeastern-Pennsylvania chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association, wrote: "If requiring photo ID discriminates, then shouldn't we abolish it and drive, buy guns, get on airplanes, and open bank accounts on the honor system? … Opponents claim that voter fraud does not exist, so the law is unnecessary. However, the legislature does not need to prove fraud in order to pass a law regulating elections. And proving voter impersonation can be tricky without requiring the very ID that opponents are trying to prevent."
Hair, referring to what she calls confusing and "Byzantine" regulations, said, "It's not really about whether you need an ID to vote; it's about whether the politicians have manipulated the system in order to get an electoral advantage by creating such a difficult, onerous form of ID that people can't comply."
She sees a pattern, and not only in the number of states that have passed voter-ID bills since 2011. "Through the history of America, it's always been a fight to expand access to the democratic process," Hair said, starting with slavery and continuing up through the Voting Rights Act era and through the passage of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which made it easier to register to vote.
"It took a few years for groups to start understanding it and using it," she said, and for African-American registration to start to equal that of whites. "Now we're in a backlash period," said Hair, who was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a 1982 voting-rights case against the state of Georgia. "The folks who were used to being in control saw that this new electorate was rising up, and they're trying to quash it."
In Charlotte, Nutter, speaking with a small group of volunteers at an Obama for America campaign office last week, took a question about voter-suppression efforts across the country and their impact on the 2012 election. He recalled recently meeting Rosa Parks' godson when her Congressional Gold Medal was loaned for an exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
"Why are we now, all these years later, trying to erect new barriers, new obstacles, new challenges, to people wanting the right to vote?" he said. "That's not the America that any of us have fought for."
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to the Washington Post's "She the People" blog, The Root, Fox News Charlotte and Creative Loafing, and has worked at the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.