Pennsylvania Voter ID Law Ruled Unconstitutional

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PA Voter ID Ruled Unconstitutional by Commonwealth Court.

This morning, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley struck down Pennsylvania’s Voter ID Law as unconstitutional.  Judge McGinley’s condemnation of this law is clearly noted in his opinion.  He said, in part,

“[The Voter ID Law is] invalid and unconstitutional on its face as the provision and issuance of compliant identification does not comport with liberal access and unreasonably burdens the right to vote….

Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.”

And most powerfully in my opinion:

“The right to vote, fundamental in Pennsylvania, is irreplaceable, necessitating its protection before any deprivation occurs. Deprivation of the franchise is neither compensable nor reparable by after-the-fact legal remedies, necessitating injunctive and declaratory relief.”

You can read a copy of the full opinion on the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia’s website. I am so pleased to see this decision.  I have followed this bill since it’s outset. In 2011, as President of Pennsylvania NOW I wrote about some of the problems with the law before it was enacted; this blog includes a copy of the letter I sent to members of the House State Government Committee detailing problems with the law.

Then after it was enacted in 2012, I was asked to testify in Commonwealth Court about the problems I observed in people attempting to obtain a Voter ID.   I told the Court what I had observed at the PennDOT licensing center in Pleasant Gap regarding problems in obtaining a photo id. These problems included lack of timely public transportation to and from the facility, lack of knowledge of the staff about the voter id law, inaccurate paperwork, long lines, and how women changing their names on their drivers’ licenses could be disenfranchised.

I also mentioned that I had used a photo id that did not meet the state’s Voter ID Law guidelines. Yet, it was accepted without question by the poll workers when I went to vote in the primary during the so-called “soft roll-out period.”

You can read more about that testimony and how accessing a photo id can specifically block access to the ballot for married women in a blog I wrote on this issue last year.

My thanks go to the legal team put together by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Advancement Project, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the Washington, DC law firm of Arnold & Porter. They successfully argued over the last 18 months that this law was and is unconstitutional under Article I. Section 5 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution.

But the battle may not be over.  Attorney General Kathleen Kane (D) argued in favor of the law before the Commonwealth Court.  News reports indicate that she hasn’t yet decided whether or not to appeal Judge McGinley’s decision to the Supreme Court.

Your voice needs to be heard.  And it can be.  Right after the decision was announced, my colleague, Michael Morrill, Executive Director of Keystone Progress, created a MoveOn petition to AG Kane asking her to let the decision stand and not appeal the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  I signed and commented that:

I am one of the people who testified in Commonwealth Court in 2012 about the problems I observed in people attempting to obtain a Voter ID and about my testing the knowledge of poll workers in correctly interpreting the law (they accepted an invalid photo id that did not meet the requirements of the law during the testing period before the law was enjoined; I used it again at another election and once again, they told me it was valid).

Don’t play games with our elections. As Judge McGinley stated, “the law is “invalid and unconstitutional on its face as the provision and issuance of compliant identification does not comport with liberal access and unreasonably burdens the right to vote.” Let his ruling stand.

You too can add your voice.  Please do so.  Thanks.

Update 5 pm January 17, 2014

Attorney General Kathleen Kane released a press statement at 4 pm today in response to the Commonwealth Court’s ruling this morning. Here’s what it says,

“I respect Judge McGinley’s very thoughtful decision in this matter. The Office of Attorney General will continue to defend the rights of all Pennsylvanians and we will work with all related Commonwealth agencies to carry out this decision and ensure that all voters have access to free and fair elections.”

Q&A regarding Attorney General Kane’s position:

1. How does this decision affect Attorney General Kane’s previous concerns?

Attorney General Kane’s previous concern and legal analysis mirrored the concern and ultimate decision of the courts in that implementation may not be sufficient to ensure free and fair elections.

2. What happens now in terms of an appeal?

The Office of Attorney General is awaiting direction from its client.”

Voter ID Laws Block Women’s Votes

In the early spring of 2012, Pennsylvania passed its restrictive photo voter id law that is similar to the one in Texas discussed in Nel’s New Day. That summer, I testified in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court about my observations at the PennDOT licensing center in Pleasant Gap about the problems I observed in obtaining a photo id. These included lack of timely public transportation to and from the facility, lack of knowledge of the staff about the voter id law, inaccurate paperwork, long lines, and how women changing their names on their drivers’ licenses could be disenfranchised.

 

This last problem is one I saw in addition to all of the issues for women voting that are raised in Nel’s blog. Here’s what I observed.

 

A woman came in and said that she had just gotten married and needed to change her name on her driver’s license. She asked for the paperwork. The employee said rather than filling out the paperwork and paying for a replacement driver’s license, he could give her a piece of paper to carry with her current license showing her new name. Since Pennsylvania’s voter id law requires the name to be “substantially the same” on the voting records and the driver’s license, any woman taking this suggested route could end up being disenfranchised since what is on the id doesn’t match her new legal name and will not match the voting registration if she has made the change with the elections office. Had she gone through the paperwork and paid for the new license, she could have done a voter registration update at the same time since PennDOT is one of the recognized state voter registration sites. None of that was offered.

 

As a result of the Commonwealth Court case, the Pennsylvania Voter ID law has been temporarily enjoined. I wrote about the case in January of this year. The second stay came in March and the third one came after the primary. That stay says that until the constitutional issues surrounding the Voter ID law are resolved, photo ids can be asked for but cannot be required. First time voters will still need some form of identification (but doesn’t have to be a photo id; for example, it could be a copy of an utility bill).

 

As Nel states at the end of her blog, we here in Pennsylvania are hoping for the same thing:

“Let us hope that the lawyers will carefully explain to the judges the [constitutionally] discriminatory basis for voter ID laws and that the judges will believe them.”

Nel's New Day

GOP legislators and governors have found many ways to disenfranchise voters who might possibly vote against them: gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter list purging, etc. The Supreme Court decision that struck down Section 4 of the almost 50-year-old Voters Rights Act created even more havoc for voters. The tipping point against these actions may have come this fall in Texas.

Last night Rachel Maddow laid out the Texas problem on her show. It starts with a Texas law that mandated that all married women must use her maiden name as the middle name, a change resulting in a mismatch between the name on voter registration and driver’s license for women. The information went viral after Sandra Watts, judge in the 117th District Court, was challenged when she tried to vote. Watts has voted in every election for the past 49 years, the name on her driver’s license has stayed…

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Voting Rights for Felons and Ex-Cons

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Voting Rights for Felons and Ex-Cons

Yesterday, a friend of mine called me.  She said that she had been talking to a woman whose partner had a felony record who had served his time for the crime.  Among the several issues they discussed was his frustration that he was no longer able to vote.  Like many people, my friend and the couple she was talking to me about all believe that once someone has been found guilty of a felony, they face a lifetime ban on their constitutional right to vote.

Since primary season is coming up in many places around the country and since most states have voter registration deadlines before their primary election day, I thought I’d provide some background information on this issue.

What is the myth?

Simply stated, the myth is that ex-cons cannot vote – once convicted and forever afterwards. There are at least two errors in this myth:

  • Except for a narrow category of crimes in Mississippi, disenfranchisement does not occur in any state if you are found guilty of a misdemeanor crime.  Even if you spend time in jail for that misdemeanor.
  • Voter disenfranchisement for people with a felony conviction differs by state.  Eleven states permanently disenfranchise some or all current and former felons from voting, but most don’t.

So it all depends on where you live. Here’s what I found out about state laws on this issue from the Brennan Center for Justice

Permanent Disenfranchisement for All Felons

Only four states – Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – permanently disenfranchise current and former felons from voting.  The only way for a person to have their voting rights reinstated is through an “individual rights restoration” process set up by each state.

Permanent Disenfranchisement for Some but Not All Felons

Seven states permanently disenfranchise some, but not all current and former felons from voting.

In Arizona, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied.

In the other six states in this category, you need to check your state law to determine which felony convictions permanently deny you the right to vote. Here’s a quick summary of these laws.

  • In Alabama, you can be permanently barred from voting if your crime is listed in their disenfranchisement list. If the conviction is a “moral turpitude” type of conviction, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence and payment of fines and fees.
  • In Delaware, voting after incarceration can be reinstated five years post-incarceration unless the crime you committed is one among a list of crimes that permanently disenfranchises your right to vote.
  • In Mississippi, you permanently lose your right to vote if you are convicted of any of ten categories of crime, whether that crime is a felony or misdemeanor.  If your crime isn’t on this list, you can vote even while incarcerated.  Note, this is the only state that has a law that permanently bans voting for someone who has created a misdemeanor.
  • In Nevada, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied.  People convicted of violent crimes at any time are permanently barred from voting. Nevada will restore those rights if a pardon is granted or if the court where the conviction originally occurred restores those rights.
  • In Tennessee, if your crime is on the list of crimes that permanently bar you from voting, then you can only have these rights reinstated if you are pardoned.  For all other crimes, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence, payment of fines and fees, and show that you are up to date on all child support payments.
  • In Wyoming, you can have your voting rights restored five years post-incarceration for first-time non-violent crimes.  All others are permanently disenfranchised unless pardoned by the Governor.

Voting Rights Restored Upon Completion of Incarceration, Probation, and Parole

Nineteen states – Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – restore your rights to vote upon completion of your sentence, which includes incarceration, probation, and parole.

In Nebraska, one additionally has to wait two years after completing the sentence before being allowed to vote.

In Washington state, you can lose your right to vote again if you haven’t paid your financial obligations after completing your sentence.

Voting Rights Restored After Incarceration and/or Probation

Five states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, and South Dakota – allow you to vote once you have completed your sentence and/or probation.

In New York, those on probation can have their voting rights restored if they receive either a “Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.”

Voting Rights Immediately Restored After Incarceration

Fifteen states – the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah – immediately restore voting rights upon one’s release from jail or prison. There are no voting restrictions for people on parole or serving probation time.

No Restrictions on Voting for People with a Criminal Record

And just two states – Maine and Vermont – allow anyone otherwise eligible to vote regardless of criminal conviction to vote. Even while incarcerated, on probation, or parole.

Who is most likely to be impacted by this disenfranchisement?

According to the ACLU, people and communities of color are most often disparately impacted by felony disenfranchisement laws. There are over 5.3 million people in the United States that are barred from voting due to a criminal conviction.  The majority of these crimes are non-violent.

Of the 5.3 million disenfranchised, 1.4 million or 26 percent of people with a criminal conviction are African-American citizens.  Considering that black persons make up just 13 percent of the national population, one can immediately see that if you are Black, you are twice as likely to have your voting rights denied.  This means that one in 13 African-Americans across the country are being denied their right to vote.

The myth of an ex-con never being allowed to vote compounds this issue. As previously stated, many believe that once convicted, they can never vote again.

With a widespread belief in this myth as well as a lack of public education to refute it, more and more ex-cons are at risk of not regaining their right to vote. Since actual disenfranchisement disparately impacts people of color, this assumption exacerbates this form of discrimination.

In my opinion, little is done by the government, courts, and communities to educate people and communities about their voting rights when one has been sentenced for a crime.  Exceptions to this come from only a few, non-profit advocacy sources, including the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the Sentencing Project.   There are others, but I believe that these four contain the best resources.

What do you need to do to get registered?

If your state is one of the states that do not permanently disenfranchise people who have completed their sentence (or if you live in Maine or Vermont which has no felony restrictions on voting), you should check out what your state law is regarding registering to vote.  The federal government has a website that has basic information on how to register and what the registration deadlines are by state.  It also has links to every state’s election office website where you can get details about state-specific requirements for voter eligibility.

If you know or believe that you have the right to vote in your state despite having a criminal history and receive a denial to vote when you attempt to register, you should check with an organization that provides legal services to people who have been incarcerated.  You can find a listing of these organizations by state here.  If your state isn’t listed, then the Prison Policy Initiative suggests that you contact one of the national groups that provide voter disenfranchisement assistance.

Once you get registered, GO VOTE!  It’s your right.