Outrage concerning voter ID and so-called voter integrity laws – really voter suppression tactics – is sweeping the nation, and rightfully so. These laws take aim at the suffrage rights of people of color, the oldest and youngest adults in our society, the poor and the marginalized. Attorney General Eric Holder, in a recent speech to the NAACP, called it a 21st century version of the “poll tax.”
Nowhere is this strategy more evident than in Pennsylvania and my hometown of Philadelphia – birthplace of independence and our precious Constitution. If supporters of Pennsylvania’s newly enacted law can stave off a court challenge, a pool of 758,939 already registered voters in the Keystone State will be prevented from casting ballots unless they obtain – in a hurry -- hard-to-get identification documents.
What is behind these laws? Certainly not the manufactured “threat” of fraudulent voting. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice in New York City found only 13 plausible cases of voter fraud nationwide between 2000 and 2010. During that same period, almost 1,000 voter ID laws have passed in 46 states.
A conservative lawyers group last year went hunting for voter fraud cases and found a larger number – about 400 prosecutions – over the same time frame. Do the math: that is less than one case per state per year (and never mind that many were for vote buying or absentee voting, which aren’t covered by these voter ID laws).
To put this issue in human perspective, let me introduce two of the people at the center of the mess in Pennsylvania.
Viviette Applewhite is a 93-year-old Philadelphian who marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Macon, Ga. She has voted in every presidential election since 1960. But her vote for President on November 6 is in jeopardy. Her purse containing her identity card was stolen, she doesn’t drive, and she has been unable, on three tries, to obtain the birth certificate that the solons of Pennsylvania now say she needs if she’s ever to exercise her Constitutional right again.
Joyce Block is 89 and lives in Bucks County outside Philadelphia. She doesn’t drive but has a birth certificate and Social Security card – in her maiden name. She’s registered and has always voted under her married name. And Joyce has a marriage certificate– in Hebrew. State officials said they couldn’t read it – end of story.
Viviette and Joyce are two of the plaintiffs in the suit filed by the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and others to block this solution in search of a problem.
Standing with these plaintiffs are the 9 percent of Pennsylvania’s registered voters, including 18 percent of Philadelphia’s electorate – whose rights are in jeopardy. Those that say “everyone” can easily acquire a photo ID conveniently ignore all those elderly Americans, for example, who may have been born at home, or in places where record-keeping for minorities was subpar. Birth certificates, a necessary start for their photo ID, often simply cannot be obtained.
This is not only a battle joined state-by-state, it extends to the nation’s capitol. As the senior Democratic appropriator for the Department of Justice, and therefore its Civil Rights Division, I’ve been fighting to protect the funding for this agency on the front lines of true voter protection. It’s alarming that the same groups that argue to protect the “integrity of elections” would endeavor to defund the very agency designed to protect the interests of a diverse American electorate.
There’s a certain irony that as we mark the 144th anniversary of the 14th Amendment, the Pennsylvania lawsuit is now in the courts. Meanwhile nonpartisan agencies and public-spirited citizens are working hard to get Pennsylvanians the identification they need to guarantee their voting rights.
Americans of all races, classes and political persuasions have marched, fought, and in some cases died to win and maintain the vote. It is the noblest and most fundamental American right, and it will not be snatched away. Voting is our identity.
Congressman Chaka Fattah (PA-02) is the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies.