WASHINGTON – A gathering of activists, journalists and voting rights advocates met recently to discuss the growing number of states that have adopted what many see as discriminatory voter registration laws. Such policies, they argue, do more to limit rather than expand democracy, threatening to disenfranchise millions in the lead up to the November elections.
Citizen journalist Faye Anderson was among those gathered at last week’s symposium, hosted by the Center for American Progress. Recalling the controversy over determining the intent of voters who may have incompletely punched paper ballots during the 2000 presidential race, she voiced the likelihood that voter photo IDs will become “the hanging chads of the 2012 election.”
Describing herself as a “chief evangelist” for the Cost of Freedom Project, a grass-roots voting rights initiative, Anderson called for national organizations, community activists and individuals to harness technology and social media to educate voters about how to comply with the new laws.
The Freedom Project is currently developing mobile phone apps in order to inform voters about the ID requirements in the states where they reside.
According to Nicole Austin-Hillery, D.C. Counsel and Director of the Washington, D.C. Office of the Brennan Center for Justice, the dramatic change since before 2011, when only Georgia and Indiana required a voter photo ID, will “seriously impact the next presidential election.”
Austin-Hillery estimated that as many as five million Americans – mostly elderly, young and minorities -- may be impeded from voting in November and that the states where more restrictive voting measures have been enacted represent 60 percent of the votes of the Electoral College.
“Nine states will not allow you to vote without a voter ID,” Austin-Hillery said, noting that at least 15 states have sought to tighten voting ID laws. Other barriers being erected include: the elimination of early voter periods; shortening the time during which absentee ballots can be filed; and curtailing ways in which voter registration drives can be conducted. Historically, registration drives have been a primary tool for registering minority and young voters.
Though only 11 percent of Americans currently lack a photo ID, Austin-Hillery explained that the percentages rise when viewed through different lenses. For example, 18 percent of Americans over 65 lack a photo ID as well as 25 percent of African Americans. Women whose last names may have been changed due to marriage will be disproportionately impacted as compared to men.
“Thirty four percent of women lack proof of citizenship that has that current legal name,” she said.
College students studying in states other than their own will be affected as well. Erica Maye, Communications Specialist at The Advancement Project, noted that though many students, if they have not registered to vote when they turned 18 years old in high school, register in college and receive IDs there. However, many college IDs do not list addresses and under many new voter registration laws, a photo ID must include an address.
“One way I think we can mitigate these effects is by using some of the on-line tools that we know young voters have been to a lot,” Maye said, referring to such sites as “Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube.” Maye also encourages the proliferation of on-line educational videos to enable students to determine the steps they need to take to be in compliance with new voting laws.
Data cited in the Brennan Center’s report, “Voting Changes in 2012,” show that, with one exception, the states that recently passed restrictive voter ID laws now boast Republican-controlled state legislatures. A number of these states have experienced a growing immigrant presence and several, like Texas, have sought to contain the potential voting impact of the Latino voting age population through redistricting initiatives or, like Alabama and Arizona, have enacted harsh anti-immigrant legislation.
“It’s not surprising,” said Eric Rodriquez, “where you see the overlap of states where there’s anti-immigrant legislation, you also see a lot of issues related to voter fraud, targeting immigrants, citizenship requirements, proof of ID requirements, et cetera.”
Rodriquez, who serves as Vice President, Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation, National Council of La Raza, said immigrants often become scapegoats during periods of transition. “The Latino community is on the cusp of really becoming more influential in critical states and elections.”
He said the fear and concern generated within those states by those who have traditionally held power is being given voice on the national stage, in part, by the meteoric rise of the Super PACs, which allow an unlimited flow of money into issue advocacy campaigns during an election cycle.
Money also has long played a key role in state politics.
Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of ColorofChange.org, said he plans to use the influence and reach of his organization to target the corporate money that supports the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that develops model state legislation and was especially instrumental in sponsoring government-issued voter ID laws.
“ColorofChange, about three months ago, launched our campaign against voter suppression,” Robinson said. His organization, which claims 800,000 members as the largest on-line African-American political advocacy group, is initially targeting 12 of ALEC’s corporate contributors. Through letters, phone calls and discussions with those 12, “none of the corporations will be able to say they didn’t know what they were supporting,” he explained.
“We will hold these corporations accountable for the idea that they can’t come for black folks’ money during the day and take away our vote at night.” In essence, the campaign will tie specific corporate brands to voter suppression.
While the panelists noted that voter ID laws proposed in states covered by the Voting Rights Act may be rescinded by the U.S. Department of Justice, to rely on the speed of the federal government to act or on future changes in the composition of state legislatures to refine now existing laws is to put democracy at risk in November.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistated the membership count for ColorofChange. The figure has been amended to reflect the actual number.
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