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?
DWS: The bottom line is that we want every eligible American to be able to cast a ballot and have their ballot counted. Things like voter-ID laws, restrictions on voter-registration drives, rollbacks on early voting and the rest of these Republican-sponsored laws only serve to make it harder for eligible Americans to vote.
If you just take voter ID laws as an example, they're written in such a way that only a small number of specific types of ID are accepted. When you consider that 11 percent of American citizens, and 25 percent of African Americans, of voting age don't have a current government-issued photo ID, it's clear that the effect and the intent is to deliberately exclude many hundreds of thousands of eligible people. And quite frankly, it targets certain kinds of eligible voters, given their propensity to vote for Democratic candidates versus Republicans.
TR: Speaking of voter-ID laws, polls show that most Americans think they sound perfectly reasonable. How does that national resistance affect your approach to this issue?
DWS: You explain to people that what photo-ID laws really do is severely limit a large percentage of eligible voters [getting] to the ballot, either because of cost or because they simply don't have an easy way to get the ID that states are requiring. On top of that, there is already a very thorough ability for voters to have their identity checked through address checks, in which they have to prove their address when they originally register, and sophisticated signature-matching identification that I believe is in every state now.
Republicans say voter-ID laws are used to prevent voter fraud, which is virtually nonexistent. In every study that's been done, and every review of election results, it's become clear that you're more likely to get hit by lightning than you are to find evidence of voter fraud.
TR: Some governors have vetoed the bills that passed their state legislatures. But in states where they've already passed, do you have a game plan for informing voters that are the most affected?
DWS: Education is the key. When a new photo-ID law passes, voters need to be made aware of what the requirements are and what their rights are. To give you another example in Florida, we had a permanent absentee ballot list, and they've changed it so that everybody has to sign up again. So even though we think they're patently unfair and go against the Voting Rights Act, we're in the process of educating people about the changes in the law.
At the DNC we have our voter-protection department that works year-round on voting-rights issues, and one of their most important projects is working with our field operation to educate voters. We just had a National Day of Action where we let people know how to register, made them familiar state by state with all the ways that they can vote, what they need to bring when they vote and especially about changes to their state laws. On just that one day, we registered 7,000 eligible Americans to vote.
TR: This is usually framed as a Democrat-versus-Republican issue, but given the financial cost of implementing these laws, have there also been Republican governors coming out against them?
DWS: Unfortunately, there really haven't been. Despite all the evidence that shows how unnecessary and harmful photo-ID laws and other changes like this are, Republicans continue to advocate for them. What's ironic is that they are expensive — they add millions of dollars, in some cases, to the cost of administering elections. And the party that continues to harp on the need to make significant cuts in the budget has no trouble supporting unnecessary changes in voting laws across the country that actually cost more money. Not only do they not care about making sure that everybody has access to the ballot, but it demonstrates how disingenuous they are about making sure that we can reduce our deficit.
TR: Last month you retracted a remark you'd made comparing voter-ID laws to Jim Crow policies. Since then, President Bill Clinton and others have used the same language. What are your thoughts on this analogy now?
DWS: You know, the bottom line is that these are very serious changes, and I think it's important that people understand just how many problems will be caused by the changes in these laws. The language that we use to describe them is far less important than people understanding what laws were changed, why they were changed and how they can get around the hurdles that Republicans are throwing in their way, so that they can get to the polls and have their votes counted.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.