WAYNESBURG – The Greene County Bar Association observed Law Day Friday with a program at the Greene County Courthouse featuring speakers who focused their remarks on this year’s theme, the right to vote.
Law Day was established in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a way to celebrate the country’s justice system and teach citizens about the law. The effort to establish and protect the right to vote has remained a central theme of this country’s legal and civic history.
Judy Hughes, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington County, was the guest speaker. She spoke about the League and one of its recent efforts to protect the right to vote through its challenge to the state’s photo identification law.
The League came about as a result of the suffragette movement in 1920 that helped bring about the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote.
It is a nonpartisan organization “that encourages informed and active participation in government by educating voters and increasing their understanding of public policy issues,” she said.
Despite the name, the organization is open today to men and women. Members pay dues to support the state and national offices, however, “basically, the League is a grass-roots organization,” she said.
Members at the local level decide which issues they are going to address, she said. One of those was the state’s voter identification law that required voters to show photo identification at the polls before casting ballots.
Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley struck down the law in January, saying it is unconstitutional and places an unreasonable burden on people trying to exercise their right to vote.
Hughes said proponents of the law had argued the new requirements would prevent voter fraud. But, “there have never been any cases brought to the court about (voter) fraud,” she said.
The League, working with the American Civil Liberties Union, was able to document many examples of people who would be disenfranchised by the requirement, including those who had voted for years and were well known by poll workers, but who didn’t have the correct photo identification.
The groups also were able to show that for some voters, obtaining the required photo identification would be difficult, especially in counties where licensing centers were open only one or two days a week.
Attempts to establish a voter identification law have continued, Hughes said. The administration of Gov. Tom Corbett asked McGinley to reconsider his ruling, a motion which McGinley only recently denied.
Hughes pointed out it already is more difficult to vote in Pennsylvania than in some other states. Pennsylvania has a registration deadline prior to an election and only one day of voting at the polls. Other states have same-day registration and voters have multiple days on which to vote, she said.
In addition to its involvement in legal challenges to protect the right to vote, the League, as part of its effort to keep voters informed each year, prepares a voters’ guide listing the background of candidates for office and their responses to questions regarding issues the league deems are important.
Hughes urged Greene County to form its own league which, she said, can help residents keep informed about issues of the day and will prove to be an asset to the community.
Jeff Grimes, president of the county bar association, also introduced the winners of the essay competition, in which participants wrote on the theme “Every Vote Matters,” and the winners of the mock trial team competition.
All three winners of the essay contest are juniors at Jefferson-Morgan High School. First place went to David Blosser, second place to Christian Randolph and third place to Gavin Koratich.
Blosser read his essay which focused on the significance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The winner of the mock trial competition was a team from West Greene High School that included Caleb Wilson, Justin Gilbert, Katie Finnegan, Sarra Zimmerman, Tara Hall, Tony Jacobs and Sam Nefzi. The team was coached by attorney Kelly Stepp.
Grimes also acknowledged the services of President Judge William Nalitz, who will retire at the end of the year. He thanked Nalitz on behalf of the bar association for his dedicated and excellent service to the court.