Voter ID Victory

By Vic Walczak, Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania


The bad back that awakened me at 6:00 a.m. on this birthday morning and that spurred unpleasant thoughts of growing old dissipated in an instant with an email alert that our long-awaited decision in the voter ID had issued. I didn’t have the opinion, but I had the result – we won! Thousands of hours of hard work in collaboration with my fantastic colleagues had not been a total waste. And that adrenaline rush only increased when I read the opinion.

“Disenfranchising voters ‘through [no] fault of the voter himself’ is plainly unconstitutional,” (p.43), wrote the judge, echoing something I’d been saying for two years. The judge agreed with virtually every argument we made in concluding that this law didn’t promote any valid governmental objective while disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.

Litigation is a wonderful tool because it gets at the truth, and in this case that meant putting the lie to the voter ID law’s proponents that ID is required to prevent rampant fraud. When pressed to identify the fraud, the commonwealth was unable to point out a single instance of the type of fraud that would be prevented by the ID. The court responded by saying that “a vague concern about voter fraud does not rise to a level that justifies the burdens constructed here.” (p.38).

So on the one hand there is no reason to have this law. On the other hand, “The overwhelming evidence reflects that there are hundreds of thousands of qualified voters who lack compliant ID.” (p.22). In the 18 months since the law went into effect, the commonwealth has issued only about 17,000 voter IDs. The gap between those who don’t have ID to vote and those have gotten it is huge – hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.

And the system was designed to make getting ID difficult. Here’s what the judge said in today’s opinion: “Requiring electors who lack complaint Photo ID (and thus have no driver’s license) go to a DLC that may not be in their county, and may be several miles away and unreachable by public transportation, is untenable. Compound that barrier by physical limitations, preventing certain electors from traveling or waiting in line, the DLC Location Requirement becomes insurmountable.” (p.28). He didn’t stop there. “Presuming applicants are able to get to a DLC, their ordeal is just beginning” (p.28) because now they have to wait in line and deal with poorly trained and unprepared PennDOT staff who give out misinformation and erect all sorts of hurdles to getting the ID.

Viviette Applewhite, 93, Philadelphia (photo credit: Marco Calderon)

Viviette Applewhite, 93, Philadelphia (photo credit: Marco Calderon)

The court also soundly rejected the commonwealth’s argument that voting is a “shared responsibility” that makes it okay to force voters to jump through a few hoops: “The statute imposes a duty upon Respondents to educate, not a duty upon electors to research.” (p.31) The court said the “shared responsibility” argument “rings hollow after Respondents fed misinformation to electors on numerous occasions, and accurate information is difficult to find.” (p.31)

The net result is that the law, “as implemented, imperfectly and inaccurately, does not assure the franchise, it de facto denies it.” (p.44). And the harm is felt most acutely by the poor and the powerless: “There is little doubt that the burdens the Voter ID Law imposes weigh most heavily on the most vulnerable members of society.” (p.47). The court concluded by saying that, “Voting laws are designed to assure a free and fair election; the Voter ID Law does not further this goal.” (p.49).

Given that proponents’ justification for the law, in-person-voter fraud, is crapola and without any basis in fact, and that hundreds of thousands of voters would be disenfranchised by the law, skewing heavily against demographics that tend to vote Democratic, there can be little doubt that Pennsylvania’s voter ID law was a voter suppression tool.

The right to vote is foundational in a democracy. The American Revolution was, after all, a fight over the right to vote. The call for no taxation without representation was a call for voting rights. Today’s decision is a wonderful day for democracy. Winning elections should be about convincing a majority of citizens that your agenda is better, not gaming the system to prevent your opponents’ supporters from casting a ballot. What a great day for the rule of law and the right of all Pennsylvania citizens. Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me! ☺

Landmark School Discipline Guidelines Announced by the Federal Government

By Harold Jordan, Community Organizer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

From left to right, Damon Hewitt (Open Society), Sen. Chris Murphy (CT), Joyce Parker (Citizens for a Better Greenville, MS), Harold Jordan, Sec. Duncan, and Marlyn Tillman (Gwinnett Parent Campaign to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline, GA) (credit: Harold Jordan)

From left to right, Damon Hewitt (Open Society), Sen. Chris Murphy (CT), Joyce Parker (Citizens for a Better Greenville, MS), Harold Jordan, Sec. Duncan, and Marlyn Tillman (Gwinnett Parent Campaign to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline, GA) (credit: Harold Jordan)

Last week, in a major announcement, the federal government issued new guidelines for all K-12 public schools with the goals of reducing discrimination in the administration of school discipline and improving school climate without overly relying on measures that remove students from school. I was at the event at which Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder presented the federal discipline guidance, “Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline,” and materials promoting best alternative school disciplinary practices. Appropriately, it was held at Justice Thurgood Marshall’s alma matter, Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore.

It is well known that different groups of students are removed from schools -by suspension, expulsion or police action – at dramatically different rates. Sec. Duncan opened the gathering by sharing the federal government’s most recent data:

• Black students are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled;
• 50 per cent of students involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement are black or Latino.
• 95 per cent of suspensions were for non-violent offenses.
• In Maryland alone, some 91 pre-K students were suspended or expelled during the 2011-2012 school year.

These trends are consistent with what we documented about Pennsylvania in our recent report – Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools. In Pennsylvania, black students are suspended at five times the rate of white students. Students with disabilities are twice as likely as other students to be suspended out of school.

Most striking was Sec. Duncan’s statement that these differences are not caused principally by differences in kids’ behavior, but by the actions of adults. Duncan added that regional differences in discipline rates – he compared South Carolina to one of the Dakotas – were not a result of differences in student behavior. The guidance document explores possible causes: differences in punishment of students for the same offense and seemingly race neutral school policies that are known to have a discriminatory effect. A recent study of the records of one million students concluded that black students are more likely than other students to be disciplined for minor infractions of the code of conduct.

Federal officials should be applauded for not just criticizing discipline practices, but for also identifying alternative strategies for making schools more peaceful without denying certain students a right to an education.

Moving the government to the point of taking this action was a long struggle. It took years of investigation, analysis, and complaints brought by parents, students, and community members to prod the federal government to move forward boldly.

These guidelines are only a start. Members of school communities must ensure that changes are implemented. The ACLU is firmly committed to being a partner in these reform efforts. In the words of Sec. Duncan, “The school-to-prison pipeline must be challenged every day.”

Harold Jordan is a community organizer at the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the author of Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools.

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