In a speech this week during his organization’s annual convention, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous railed against restrictive state voting laws, likening their rise across the country to the days of Jim Crow. “Our voting rights are under attack because we had a great breakthrough — the election of a black president,” said Jealous to convention attendees in Los Angeles. “It was followed by a great backlash.”
Former President Bill Clinton made a similar assessment earlier this month, as did Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), about laws either pending or recently passed by dozens of Republican legislatures — laws that, among other measures, require specific photo ID at the polls, shrink the period for early voting or demand proof of citizenship just to register. Democrats argue that state-issued photo-ID laws particularly stand to disenfranchise racial minorities, the poor and the young — all groups that are less likely to have the documentation. In Wisconsin alone, half of African-American adults are currently ineligible to vote under the tightened requirements.
While Democrats have been speaking out against the changes for months now, they’re fighting back, too. At the state level, the Democratic governors of New Hampshire, North Carolina, Missouri, Montana and Minnesota vetoed voting legislation that passed their state legislatures. Last month, a group of 16 senators sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to examine new voting laws to ensure that they will not have a discriminatory impact on voters. The Congressional Black Caucus also appealed to the Justice Department.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chair of the Democratic National Committee, has been sounding the alarm on the matter since taking up the Democratic National Committee mantle in May. She talked to The Root about what else her party is doing to thwart voter-ID and other restrictive legislation, the majority of Americans who don’t see any problem with it and how she feels now about never-ending Jim Crow analogies.
The Root: Several members of Congress have urged Attorney General Eric Holder to review voter-ID laws and their implementation. Has the Justice Department responded?
Debbie Wasserman Schultz: The assistant attorney general for civil rights, Tom Perez, has assured Americans and members of Congress that the Voting Section is looking very closely at the laws that have recently passed. They’ve acknowledged the concern that both I and others have expressed about the potential for these laws to have an undue and disproportionate impact on racial minorities and the poor. I trust that Tom Perez and Attorney General Eric Holder are reviewing these laws very seriously.
TR: Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the DOJ is required to review changes to voting procedure in certain jurisdictions. Wasn’t the department investigating anyway?
DWS: Section 5 says that states with Section 5 counties in them have the affirmative obligation to submit any change that they make to DOJ for review, and those changes have to be precleared. But there’s a problem. In my state of Florida, for example, we have five Section 5 counties, and the state is in the process of trying to implement the law that they just passed, which definitely impacts voting rights. But they have not submitted it for Section 5 review and preclearance. So there definitely needs to be greater DOJ oversight, and that’s why it’s important that the Voting Section take a close look at this.
TR: Do you want to see the laws that have passed overturned, or is the concern more about how they’re implemented?