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Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Voter ID Law is Struck Down for 2012


A new photo ID law cannot be implemented in November 2012 consistent with the Pennsylvania Constitution. The state’s highest court expressed skepticism about the state’s readiness to implement “Act 23” and remanded the case challenging the law to the Commonwealth Court to take another look.

That court concluded the state could not the implement the law in November 2012 without disenfranchising voters unable to obtain photo ID. The court scheduled for December further proceedings as to whether the law can be implemented after 2012.


Prior to Act 23’s enactment in 2012, Pennsylvania voters had to present one of several specified forms of ID in order to vote in person. The new law narrowed the identification acceptable to various forms of photo ID. In an effort to ensure voters would not be disenfranchised in November 2012, the State of Pennsylvania undertook a series of generous interpretations of the law providing for a series of exceptions to seemingly strict photo ID requirements.

Meanwhile voters and voting rights organizations challenged the law as unduly burdening their right to vote, invoking not the U.S. Constitution but the Pennsylvania Constitution. They asked for an immediate and permanent injunction preventing the law from going into effect.

Attorneys with AARP Foundation Litigation filed friend-of-the-court briefs joining multiple Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organizations opposing the law, first in the Commonwealth Court, and then on appeal in the Supreme Court. AARP, the Senior LAW Center of Philadelphia and the other amici argued that Pennsylvania’s law would unfairly impede the voting rights of older people, who constitute an especially large share of the overall population and the voting population of Pennsylvania.

The lead named plaintiff in the lawsuit, 95-year-old Viviette Applewhite, testified in the hearing for the preliminary injunction that she has voted in every presidential election except one since she became old enough to vote. However, she does not have and has never had a driver’s license, her last name has changed several times, her purse was stolen many years ago containing her important documents, and though she has attempted several times and has now retained a lawyer to help her obtain the documents, she has not been able to obtain her birth certificate from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Other plaintiffs testified that they had attempted to obtain identification documents and been turned away for various reasons, including inability to pay the necessary fees. Several other named plaintiffs are older Pennsylvanians, including African Americans born in the South at a time when minority citizens often were not issued birth certificates. Yet such a document typically is critical to obtaining a driver’s license or other government-issued photo ID.

While noting that petitioners’ counsel “did an excellent job of ‘putting the face’ to those burdened by voter ID requirement,” the trial court ruled that it could not preliminarily enjoin the law (though it might change its mind if in implementation the law proved unfair).

This Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that an injunction was in fact proper because the lower court had not made sufficient findings to justify that implementing the law during the November 2012 election could be done fairly and effectively. The Supreme Court sent the case back for further hearings on whether the state could implement the photo ID so as to ensure that no significant number of eligible voters would be unable to secure photo ID in time to vote. On remand the Commonwealth Court ruled the state was not prepared to implement the law in such a manner. Thus, the law will not take effect for the upcoming election but the case will continue for a full hearing on all of the plaintiffs’ claims.

What’s at Stake

Photo ID laws provide particular difficulties for low-income people, people who are geographically isolated, people in nursing facilities, people with disabilities and older citizens. The requirement for government issued identifications poses a burden for those who do not or can not drive, who do not possess passports because they no longer (or never) traveled, and to those whose names have changed or whose birth records in far-flung states are no longer obtainable.

Case Status

On remand in Applewhite v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania enjoined the state photo ID law from going into effect for the November 2012 election

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Our legal advocacy initiatives  - conducted by AARP Foundation Litigation (AFL) - reflect more than 15 years of work in federal and state courts across the country. Through our efforts, we support the Foundation’s four priority areas: Hunger, Income, Housing and Isolation, and ensure that those 50 and older have a voice in the laws and policies that affect their daily lives.