Regardless of the content of their addresses Monday morning at the annual "King Day at the Dome" rally at the State House in Columbia, S.C., the joint appearance of NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks volumes in and of itself. Monday marks the first time Holder will have been in the Palmetto State since Dec. 23, when the U.S. Department of Justice struck down its new voter photo ID law, which the DOJ says would likely have disenfranchised minorities, students and disabled voters alike.
The optics of their joint appearance — the leader of the nation's oldest and most storied civil rights organization and the country's top law-enforcement officer — send a signal about the intent, through legal challenges and social advocacy, to make voting rights a high priority in an already contentious election year. The rally takes place five days before the South Carolina primary.
The United States is a nation with a patchwork of laws on voter identification — some states with strict policies, others with no policy at all. Thirty-one states require voters to show IDs before voting. In 2011 eight states — Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin — enacted variations of the same rule, requiring some form of photo identification. Critics of the laws argue that they disenfranchise voters of color and young voters, who are less likely to possess and be able to afford the required identification.
In an interview with The Root before his South Carolina address, Jealous spoke about the importance of the Justice Department action against South Carolina, the possible impact of new voter ID laws and the strategies for blunting their potentially suppressive impact on voter turnout in the 2012 election.
Jealous, who has appeared at previous King Day at the Dome rallies, noted that the 2012 event takes place amid growing attention to voter ID laws in general, and specifically a tough new immigration law enacted in South Carolina. A federal judge blocked some of that law's more restrictive parts, such as allowing police and authorities to check the immigration status of any suspect. But the amended measure — widely seen as a copycat of Arizona's controversial immigration law — went into effect on Jan. 1, despite lawsuits by the Justice Department and advocacy groups.
"This state, like so many others in the Deep South, has engaged in state-sponsored voter suppression," Jealous said. "Two years ago we were dealing with a recession; what's different this year is that the state has sought to focus special energy on suppressing voters of color. But there's also been a ruthless attack here on migrant workers' rights. The attack on the rights of immigrants will be a focus of my comments [Monday] and on this march."
Jealous said he'd meet with Attorney General Holder on Monday to discuss how the DOJ's move in South Carolina might be exportable to other states with questionable voter ID laws. "We are optimistic," Jealous said. "Texas' law is more egregious than South Carolina's. Mississippi is just as bad, and Florida has serious issues as well. We're hopeful that what the Justice Department has begun in South Carolina will impact other states as well."
The NAACP plans to mount its own challenges to voter ID laws nationally in the months before the election, Jealous said. The organization has already called out South Carolina's law as "little more than a 21st-century poll tax."
The voter ID battle will be joined in a relative handful of states for Jealous, who outlined a strategy "for defending and expanding the electorate":
"In 2012 we will be fighting voter suppression legislation wherever it's introduced. We're engaged in a number of states like Maine [where Republicans just reintroduced a voter ID bill despite voters' rejection of a similar measure in November], but the really important states like Virginia and Pennsylvania are also in play right now.
"Our biggest battle to stop suppression with voter ID bills is in two places. One is where bills have already passed: Texas, South Carolina and so forth," he said. "The other part of the strategy is to fight the legislative battles in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, where bills are pending, and in North Carolina, where the legislature has threatened to override the governor's veto of a voter ID bill.
"We'll engage in very aggressive voter registration and identification drives designed to further expand the electorate," Jealous said. "We'll make sure that those who need voter IDs get them."
One novel NAACP outreach initiative will seek out the youngest voters where they live. Literally.
"We'll be mailing a voter registration form to every black kid in the nation who's turned 18 since November 2010 or who will be 18 by November 2012," Jealous said. "At 18 they still see voting as a part of a rite of passage, and about 600,000 black kids turn 18 every year." He estimated that as many as 1.2 million younger African-American voters could be reached this way.
"Dr. King fought and died to make sure that our democracy is inclusive," Jealous said. "It's been almost 50 years since Medgar Evers was assassinated. The reality is that many people have died in many of our lifetimes to secure these votes. We fought in 2011; we won in some places, we lost in some places. We'll continue fighting as aggressively as possible."
Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root and the author of American Bandwidth, on the Obama campaign and presidency.