Longtime Republican politician Stanley R. Lawson Sr. says he knows a rat when he smells one. And what's going on politically around recently passed voter ID laws in his home state of Pennsylvania reeks of partisan politics.
Lawson, 70, a registered Republican, is currently the head of the Harrisburg chapter of the NAACP, but has served as chair to the Dauphin County Republican Party and as a member of the Harrisburg City Council.
"The whole thing stinks," Lawson told The Huffington Post on Friday afternoon. "They say the reason they did this is because of all the fraud going on. But I happen to be a former Republican chairman of the county, I've been on the city council, I've been a township commissioner, and I've never seen it or heard anyone complain about voter fraud."
In Pennsylvania, state courts are still hashing out legislation passed this Spring that requires voters to present state-issued photo identification to cast a ballot, identification that nearly 10 percent of Pennsylvanians reportedly don't have, according to recent studies.
Pennsylvania joined a host of other states, nearly all of which are controlled by Republican-led legislatures, in passing some kind of controversial voter ID law. A few states, including South Carolina and Texas, have already had their laws challenged by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act because of a history of discriminatory election practices.
But Pennsylvania doesn't fall under the purview of the relevant section of that act, but the state's laws have faced legal challenges from a range of plaintiffs, including the ACLU and Viviette Applewhite, a 93-year-old who doesn't have a driver's license or Social Security card and uses a wheelchair to get around, who typifies a group that is likely to be adversely affected by the law.
Yet, on the ground in Harrisburg, the state capital, and in major cities including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, activist groups and politicians are rallying to educate voters and push back against the laws, which many say have been designed to disenfranchise the poor, minorities, students, the elderly and disabled voters, many of whom tend to vote for Democrats and who are less likely to have the specific kind ID required.
Proponents of the law, including the national Republican Party, say the laws are designed to prevent fraud and maintain the integrity of the election process.
Earlier this week Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican member of Pennsylvania's state House and an original sponsor of the law, chastised those who might be unable to obtain the required ID as "lazy" and ridiculed those who he said were "living off the public dole."
"As Romney said, 47 percent of the people that are living off the public dole, living off their neighbors' hard work, and we have a lot of people out there that are too lazy to get up and get out there and get the ID they need," he said on a radio talk show in Pittsburgh.
Sentiments such as Metcalfe's are exactly why Lawson said it is time for everyone who cares about democracy to stand up and make their voices heard.
"People are angry, and out of that anger more people are coming out and becoming engaged," Lawson said. "This whole thing is going to backfire on them. My grandfather had this saying. He'd say, 'Be careful. Sometimes when you dig a hole for somebody, you might just fall in it yourself.'"
Lawson said he's been a loyal Republican for decades and has served and represented the community as such, standing as the first African-American Republican elected to many local seats. But Lawson said his stance against the voter ID law is not about party but about right and wrong.
Lawson said that he has never seen a more blatant attempt at voter disenfranchisement.
"My party loyalty has been shaken. I still have loyalty to my party, but I also have loyalty to my community and my God, and this ID thing stinks," Lawson said. "What it does is paint the Republican Party with a broad brush. Only a few people in a room came up with this idea, but everybody is not with this nonsense."
Republican lawmakers passed voter ID legislation in March, over protests from Democrats who said it was a targeted effort to chip away at core Democratic voting blocs.
Since then, Republican politicians have done little to dispel that notion. In June, House Republican leader Mike Turzai said the implementation of the law would go a long way to bolster Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's chances of winning the state.
"Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done," Turzai said during a Republican State Committee meeting. The audience, according to reports, went wild with applause.
Earlier this week in Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which had been hearing arguments on the law, sent the case back to the lower court for review to determine if the law "is not being implemented according to its own terms." The law requires "liberal access" to photo IDs for those who do not have state-issued ID, such as a driver's license or military ID.
But according to reports, only a scant number of those non-driver's license IDs have been issued. There is concern that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, or PennDot, which is responsible for providing the IDs, can't handle the demand with so little time before the November elections.
Commonwealth Judge Richard E. Simpson, who upheld the voter ID law last month, is set to hear further arguments in the case on Sept. 25. Simpson ruled on Aug. 15 that the plaintiffs in the case had not proved the law would disenfranchise voters.
But recent data suggests that 9.2 percent of Pennsylvanians currently don't have the required photo ID to vote, amounting to a whopping 758,000 voters who could be barred from voting. In Philadelphia, according to a recent report by The Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 percent of the city's registered voters, or 186,830 individuals, do not have proper ID to vote.
That number, according to activist groups and opponents of the law, includes elderly voters who have voted for decades but may not be physically able to obtain a voter ID card, or have the funds to obtain an original birth certificate or other documentation that is necessary to prove their identity. Many other voters in rural areas, where public transportation is limited, may not have a way to get to a PennDot office.
Sara Mullen, the Associate Director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU, said that the rigors of obtaining state-issued voter ID cards are spread across demographic groups and regions.
Nine Pennsylvania counties, she said, many of them rural, don't have a PennDot center at all. Thirteen counties have PennDot centers that are open one day a week. In Scranton, one of the state's larger cities, the PennDot center is open only 3 days a week, which can be a burden on many of the working-class city's blue-collar workers.
Mullen said that outside of organized actions related to getting valid ID cards in the hands of those who need them, staff in her office have personally volunteered to take dozens and dozens of seniors to get their IDs.
"Actually getting to PennDot is extremely difficult," Mullen told HuffPost. "I took a 99-year-old lady to PennDot, and there's no way she could've done that taking public transportation."
The 99-year-old woman is the mother of one of the ACLU's clients, Mullen said. She has bad arthritis and needs a walker to move about.
During the woman's trip to get her voter ID card, "She blessed Jesus every move she made," Mullen said. "For many older people, their voting place may be in their building, but it's a hardship getting to PennDot."
Getting to the proper location is only half the battle that many face. To obtain a voter ID card, applicants have to present a Social Security card, a birth certificate with a raised seal and two separate proofs of residence.
Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, the lower court's hearing of the case on Sept. 25 coincides with National Voter Registration Day, a day on which several hundred organizations from across the country are hitting the streets to mobilize and register voters. Volunteers are car-pooling seniors and those who don't have transportation to PennDot locations. Others are canvassing the streets while still others plan to gather outside of the courthouse in Harrisburg to rally.
"This isn't about Democrats or Republicans," Lawson said. "This is about freedom, about Martin Luther King Jr. and others who laid their lives down so that we have the right to vote."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that voting laws in Texas and South Carolina are reviewable by the Dept. of Justice in accordance with the Civil Rights Act; they are in fact controlled by the Voting Rights Act. Language has also been added to indicate that Pennsylvania is subject to that act, but not to the section that applies to Texas, Florida and other Southern states.
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