Is there a “state of emergency” over voting rights in America? That was the declaration of a coalition of civil rights, faith-based and social justice organizations and groups representing communities of color in a conference call on Wednesday, just in time for National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 25. They sounded the alarm about voter-ID laws, early voting restrictions and other obstacles they say stand in the way of full participation of every citizen.
The purpose of the call was not just to explain “why these laws are detrimental to the cause of democracy and to the fundamental constitutional right that we all have to vote in this nation,” said Marc Morial, National Urban League president and CEO, but also “to inform people across the nation about steps they need to take to insure that their precious right to vote is protected” this fall and beyond.
As they are contesting voter-ID laws, the civil rights groups are also encouraging voters to check their state laws, registration status and documentation as well as deadlines for early and absentee voting and the location and hours of polling places.
While supporters of voter-ID laws, enacted mostly by Republican-controlled state legislatures around the country after the 2010 elections, say they are good-faith efforts to protect the integrity of the vote by eliminating voter fraud, opponents have criticized them as solutions in search of a problem that doesn’t exist. Groups such as the Brennan Center for Justice have found the laws disenfranchise millions, mostly minorities, senior citizens, low-income voters and the young, those most likely to lack the specific kinds of photo ID required.
Ben Jealous, CEO and president of the NAACP, said the wave of legislation should not have come as a surprise “when the color barrier at the White House was broken by the largest and most diverse presidential electorate ever.” Perhaps if the new occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue had been a Condoleezza Rice, or another African American more supported by conservatives, “we may not have seen that backlash,” Jealous said.
“We have been fighting back,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, which joined with other groups to fight a strict Pennsylvania voter-ID law, passed by a GOP majority and signed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. The commonwealth’s Supreme Court is calling for more hearings, with two of its members unhappy about that decision. The two judges, both Democrats on a six-member court split evenly between parties, said it’s already clear that eligible voters won’t be able to obtain the specific type of required photo ID in time. The state must now show how it will be able to provide IDs to eligible voters. “We expect it will be a high bar for them to reach,” she said.
That’s just one election battleground. Challenges to laws around the country have resulted in some changes and compromises. Judges in Wisconsin have blocked implementation of that state’s law, though the Republican attorney general has asked the state Supreme Court to overturn the decisions. Laws in Texas and South Carolina have hit judicial roadblocks because of provisions in the Voting Rights Act that — because of past discrimination — require Justice Department approval of any changes. Virginia and New Hampshire have expanded the list of accepted identifications in response to challenges. In Michigan, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder split from his party to veto voter-ID legislation.
Florida, as usual, is its own special case. After conflicts over rules on voter registration and attempts by the state to remove non-citizens from voting rolls, Florida has reached a compromise with groups that said its policies discriminate against Hispanics.
Eric Rodriguez, vice president of National Council of La Raza, said on Wednesday that his group supports “simple and basic measures that allow election officials to confirm the identity of would-be voters,” but “we cannot stand by and allow some political leaders to manipulate the outcomes of elections by adopting laws that they know will disenfranchise our community.”
Representatives of other groups on Wednesday’s call included Mee Moua, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, who warned that some local election judges don’t understand that federal law requires jurisdictions to provide language access and voter assistance when needed, and Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, who said that the first Americans were “the last Americans to secure our rightful place at the ballot box,” and sometimes confront confusion over the acceptability of tribal IDs and availability of ballots in all languages.
Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews, executive director of PICO Network, a national faith-based community organizing group, said, “Vigilance in getting voters to the polls is the way we live out our values in public life.” PICO’s voter registration Sabbath begins Sept. 21 through Sept. 30. “We pledge to preach, to teach, to organize and to register people of faith this season,” Mathews said.
Rebekah Spicuglia of the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank, and Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, a policy and advocacy center, discussed what they said are voter intimidation tactics by groups such as True the Vote that monitor polling places for irregularities, with a stated goal of preventing voter fraud. (In The Washington Post, Cathy Kelleher, a Maryland real estate agent who started poll watching and voter-roll inspection efforts after getting involved with True the Vote in 2011, said, “We’re there so people don’t try to do anything fishy.”)
“Watching and following are not race-neutral verbs in our nation’s history,” Spicuglia said on Wednesday. “This is an intimidation tactic that is going to be in full force at the polls.” Demos and Common Cause have issued a “Bullies at the Ballot Box” report that details what is permissible and legal when it comes to challenging a voter’s eligibility, both before and on Election Day and inside and outside the polling place.
“At some point we will be beyond the point where you can sustain any further challenges to the law,” said Morial. Fighting the fear and confusion that might make some voters just give up, the rights groups have united with one goal, he said. “We want to help people get everything they need in order to be able to participate.”
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3