By Community Affairs Reporter Cherri Gregg
HARRISBURG, Pa. (CBS) — Pennsylvania’s voter ID law heads back to court Monday after nearly a year in legal purgatory. Opening arguments begin this afternoon in a trial that is expected to last two weeks.
Last July, all eyes were on Harrisburg as dozens of witnesses testified about their struggles obtaining state-issued photo ID. Voters like, lead plaintiff Viviette Applewhite who repeatedly tried to get the ID, but was denied.
“All I want to do is be able to vote,” she told reporters last year outside of the Harrisburg courthouse.
At the time, voters had to produce their birth certificate, social security card or other documentation to qualify for a free state issued non-driver ID to use for voting. Opponents argued the law was a ploy to keep minorities from the polls since they are less likely to have the necessary documentation. Conservatives who backed the law- argued its goal was to prevent voter fraud. Republican state house leader Mike Turzai said the real purpose was to help Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania. With just months until the 2012 presidential election, Judge Robert Simpson upheld the law. The ACLU appealed. Eventually- the law was stopped in its tracks just weeks before the general election.
Nils Hagen-Fredriksen, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of General Counsel, says a lot has changed. He says voter ID- as a concept- is constitutional. He says the focus of this year’s trial will be on whether the state issued IDs are now easy to get.
“We’ve been through multiple elections now, there has been a substantial education and public relation efforts, a number of media reports,” says Hagen-Fredriksen.
In addition, last August the Pennsylvania Department of State launched a new DOS ID, with far less restrictions, allowing many voters to get their ID.
PennDOT reports they’ve distributed less than 17,000 free non-drivers and DOS IDs.
Even Ms. Applewhite and some other plaintiffs were able to get one.
Plaintiff attorney Jennifer Clark says its still is not enough.
“With this law, there are still hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have the ID that they need to vote in the next election,” she says, “And there’s nothing the Commonwealth can do to solve that problem.”
Clark says DOS IDs are only available at PennDOT locations, which is a problem for voters who live in the nine Pennsylvania counties that do not have a facilities or in the nearly a dozen more that have facilities that are only open one day a week.
“People have to have access to a car and they have to have the stamina to wait in line,” says Clark.
Plaintiffs say the disabled, elderly or extremely poor- with a PennDOT in their area, still do not have access. Clark says the state could do more.
“The state has not done mobile units to get IDs out to people,” says Clark. “And their advertising campaign- you’ll hear it was ineffective.”
But the Commonwealth believes the law can withstand constitutional scrutiny.
“The fact that you need a voter ID or the fact that you need to go someplace to get a photo ID is not in itself an obstacle to voting,” says Hagen-Frederiksen.
Dozens of witnesses, including state employees, experts, voters and advocates are expected to testify over the course of the two-week trial.
Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley- a democrat who spent much of his career working in Allegheny County- will preside over the case. The original Judge Robert Simpson handed the case over last month.
Judge McGinley is expected to rule in early August on whether to block the law for the November election. A final decision is not likely until sometime next year.