PHILADELPHIA — Four years ago as Viviette Applewhite, now 93, was making her way through her local Acme supermarket, her pocketbook hanging from her shoulder, a thief sliced the bag from its straps.
A former hotel housekeeper, Applewhite, who never had a driver’s license, was suddenly without a birth certificate or a Social Security card. Adopted and twice married, she had several name changes over the years, so obtaining new documents was complicated. As a result, with Pennsylvania now requiring a state-approved form of photo identification to vote, Applewhite, a supporter of President Barack Obama, may be forced to sit out November’s election for the first time in decades.
Incensed, and spurred on by liberal groups, Applewhite and others like her are suing the state in a closely watched case, one of a number of voter-identification suits across the country.
“They’re trying to stop black people from voting so Obama will not get re-elected,” Applewhite said as she sat in her modest apartment in Philadelphia, reflecting a common sentiment among those who oppose the law. “That’s what this whole thing is about.”
Whether or not that is true, what Democrats call “voter suppression” is generating increased attention as the Nov. 6 election looms. Last week, Texas took the Obama administration to federal court because it blocked a voter identification law there on racial discrimination grounds.
In Florida, officials successfully sued for access to a federal database of noncitizens in hopes of purging them from voter rolls, a move several other states plan to emulate.
Advocates say the laws have nothing to do with voter suppression and are about something else entirely: ensuring the integrity of elections, preventing voter fraud and improving public confidence in the electoral process in an era when photo identification is routine for many basic things, including air travel.
Thirty-three states have passed laws requiring identification for voting. Five — Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas, Tennessee and Georgia — have what are called strict photo identification requirements, meaning voters must present specific kinds of photo IDs before voting.
Six states — Michigan, South Dakota, Idaho, Louisiana, Hawaii and Florida — have less-strict photo requirements, meaning voters may be able to sign affidavits or have poll workers who recognize them verify their identities.
Attorney General Eric Holder said last week of the Texas statute, “We call those poll taxes,” a reference to fees in some Southern states a century ago aimed at preventing blacks from voting.
He said that while 8 percent of whites do not have the type of documentation that would be required by the Texas election law, the percentage among blacks is triple that.
Opponents of the laws note that nearly every state legislature that has passed them in the past two years is Republican-run and that those most affected are minority groups and the urban poor, constituencies that tend to vote Democratic.
In a report issued Wednesday, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law said it had found that obtaining proper voter identification in the affected states was difficult. More than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office, and many of the offices maintain limited hours, the report said. Moreover, it said, despite pledges to make voter identification free, birth and marriage certificates, often needed for the process, cost $8 to $25, and many affected voters are poor.
The argument by the Pennsylvania law’s proponents that it has nothing to do with partisan politics took a blow late last month when Mike Turzai, the majority leader of the state’s House of Representatives, addressed a group of fellow state Republicans.
Listing the accomplishments of the Republican-controlled legislature, he said, “Voter ID — which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”
In Wisconsin, a voter identification requirement has been declared to be in violation of the state constitution, but that ruling is expected to be appealed. Some Southern states, like Texas and South Carolina, have to clear any voting law changes with the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The department has rejected their identification requirements as discriminatory, and this past week Texas has been challenging that ruling in federal court in Washington. In September, South Carolina will take its case to court.
One of the most closely watched cases is in Pennsylvania, where polls show a tight race shaping up between Obama and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
“We don’t know whether voter fraud is a huge or a small problem, but we believe the new law will preserve the integrity of every vote,” said Ronald G. Ruman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Supporters also point to accusations that ACORN, the activist group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now that worked to register minority group members, was engaging in voter registration fraud a few years ago.
This month, the Pennsylvania Department of State estimated that 759,000 registered voters may be at risk of not having the required identification. It promised to notify each one explaining what needed to be done.
“Obama won Pennsylvania in 2008 by 600,000 votes,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which is leading the challenge to the law. “What is most galling is to hear the law’s proponents argue that one person voting improperly undermines the integrity of the election. What about all the people prevented improperly from voting? Doesn’t that undermine the integrity of the election?”