By Mark Shade
HARRISBURG, Penn. (Reuters) - Hundreds of demonstrators protested Pennsylvania's controversial new voter identification law on Tuesday, calling it unnecessary and discriminatory.
The law faces a challenge beginning on Wednesday in state court by civil rights groups. The U.S. Justice Department said on Monday it was investigating whether the law discriminates against minorities.
At Tuesday's rally, protesters said the law violates the nation's Voting Rights Act which, passed in 1965 during the peak of the civil rights movement, prohibits rules that make it more difficult for minorities to vote.
Voter identification laws have become a contentious issue in this presidential election year. Pennsylvania is one of 11 states to pass voter ID laws since 2010. Supporters, who include Republican Governor Tom Corbett, say it is necessary to prevent fraud and to keep non-citizens from voting.
Opponents say it targets minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic, and elderly voters, who are less likely to have valid ID.
"It's affecting African Americans, minorities and older people," said Phyllis Waller, 56, a protestor from Washington, Pennsylvania, who said the law will prevent a number of older people in her church from voting.
"It shouldn't take away that right for anyone," she said.
Challenging the law in Commonwealth Court this week are a number of civil and voting rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
The protesters included members of labor unions and activists. State Representative Daylin Leach, a Democrat, who has proposed a repeal of the law, said: "Gov. Corbett manufactured fake problems for partisan purposes."
The Justice Department said it will analyze the Pennsylvania data to determine if voters who lack proper ID under the new law are disproportionately black or Hispanic.
Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Carol Aichele told reporters after the protest that the state was cooperating with the Justice Department.
"The law is valid and will sustain any kind of test," she said, adding it "gives poll workers a reliable way to verify the identity of every voter. It's something we can't do now."
She said it is anticipated that 85,000 voters will need a special ID issued free by the state.
The Justice Department has brought Voting Rights Act challenges against several other states for their voter ID laws. Lawsuits from Texas and South Carolina are pending.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Stacey Joyce)