Remembering a Voting Rights Champion

ACLU of Pennsylvania
4 min readDec 31, 2019
Viviette Applewhite in 2019

By Witold Walczak, Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Few people find fame at age 93, but that’s just what Viviette Applewhite did. In 2012, she became the lead plaintiff in what turned out to be a successful lawsuit challenging a voter photo identification law enacted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that could have, by our analysis, disenfranchised over 100,000 of duly registered voters. Viviette, who turned 100 in May, passed on December 30, and today we remember her with respect and affection.

The first time I asked Viviette why voting was important to her, she replied bluntly, “because it gives me the right to complain.” During the civil rights era, she traveled to attend several services given by a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. She even joined him once for a march in Macon, Georgia, to promote voting rights.

Born in 1919 in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, Viviette had voted in nearly every presidential election since first casting a ballot for FDR in 1940. Pennsylvania’s voter ID law jeopardized her lifelong commitment to one of our most precious civil liberties.

Applewhite, et al., v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania helped wake people to the reality that not every voter has or can get a government-issued photo ID. Viviette’s tale was particularly complicated, but the disenfranchisement she would have suffered was all too commonplace.

Viviette Applewhite and the Applewhite, et al., v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania trial team (July 2012)

Pennsylvania’s 2012 law required one of very few types of photo identification. In reality, unless you had a driver’s license or non-driver state ID, you likely didn’t have the ID required to vote. Ludicrously, even a veterans’ picture ID, issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, didn’t suffice.

To get a state-issued ID in the post-9/11 security-enhanced world, you needed an original birth certificate and social security card, and the names had to match perfectly. Women were disproportionately affected by this requirement because they more often changed names with marriage. In that case, they also needed an original marriage certificate.

ACLU of Pennsylvania

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.