(The Root) — "Our duty today," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, before a crowd of African-American clergy members, "is to remember that the Bible tell us: 'For lack of knowledge, the people perish.' "
With this guiding mantra, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches joined forces on Wednesday for their inaugural Faith Leaders Summit on Voting Rights. The Washington, D.C., forum, attended by members of Congress and about 200 leaders from black churches across the country, was designed to inform attendees about restrictive state-level voting laws passed around the country and to empower them to share with their home congregations information about surmounting subsequent voting obstacles.
The event's first panel summarized various laws that have passed around the nation from 2010 to 2012, including measures that do the following:
* Require people to present a birth certificate, or other proof of U.S. citizenship, in order to register to vote
* Require non-expired, state-issued photo identification in order to register and/or vote
* Eliminate same-day voter registration
* Levy stringent guidelines and penalties on third-party voter-registration drives
* Reduce or eliminate early voting periods (including the Sunday before elections, which counted for 32 percent of the African-American voter turnout in Florida in 2008)
* Bar people with criminal convictions from restoring their voting rights after they've paid their debts to society
"The majority of states where these laws have passed are the states that make up 60 to 75 percent of the electoral votes that will be required to elect our next president," said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. "And who doesn't have state-issued photo ID? Eleven percent of all Americans lack photo ID. Eighteen percent of Americans over the age of 65 lack photo ID, and 25 percent of African Americans lack photo ID."
Thirty-four percent of women, largely because they changed their names after getting married, lack proof of citizenship with their current legal name. In many instances, even students who attend state colleges are prohibited from using their student ID to vote, or register to vote.
Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, is leading litigation against photo-ID laws in several states, including Wisconsin, where 78 percent of African-American men between the ages of 18 and 24 do not have state-issued photo ID, and in Texas, where 600,000 already-registered voters also lack the identification. "These are people who have been voting, but the rules have been changed right before we're getting to the finish line," she said.
"You do not need a state-issued photo ID with your current address on it, that's unexpired, to get on a plane — and by the way, getting on a plane is not a right," Browne-Dianis continued, countering claims made by advocates of strict photo-ID laws. "You don't need it to buy Sudafed. Don't listen to the rhetoric surrounding these laws."
Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Lawyers' Committee Voting Rights Project, argued that the rationale provided for these laws — protecting against in-person voter fraud — is a smokescreen for limiting voter participation. "Yes, there have been mistakes people have made in trying to vote, but there is nothing within our democracy that threatens us to the extent that we need to take away the right to vote from millions of voters," she said, adding that numerous studies and investigations (pdf) have produced no evidence of people impersonating other voters or using fraudulent names at the polls.
Another component at play is that many voters are unaware that these laws are being passed. "There are a lot of people who went to the polls in 2008 and 2010 who don't know that when they go to the polls in 2012, they may need an ID that they weren't aware they needed to have," said Johnson-Blanco.
"They may find out that they have been removed from the polls because states like Florida now have a purging regime where, using faulty databases, they have mailed notices to thousands of voters saying, 'You are a noncitizen and not eligible to vote. If you believe we're wrong, come to a hearing and bring proof.' This is what we're dealing with right now in our democracy."
The Action Steps
The summit panel's attorneys issued booklets detailing the new state laws, invited church leaders to join the Advancement Project email list for regular reminders of deadlines and other voting information, and encouraged church leaders to make use of 866-OUR-VOTE, a national voter-protection hotline that will be staffed with live workers starting on June 4. "Whenever somebody comes to you and says you can't vote, that's the line you call," said Arnwine. "When people come to you and say you're not registered, that's the line you call. That's the hotline that's your lifeline."
The panel also advised the summit to get their congregants registered, start "Get ID" programs at their churches (packets on how to administer such a program were distributed) and ask their congregants to become poll workers.
"When they came up with this, they counted on people being indifferent, they counted on people not knowing, they counted on people being so into themselves that they would not even pay attention," said Arnwine. "They counted on these [civil rights] groups being too under-resourced, underfunded and stretched so thin on everything else that they're trying to do. The one thing they didn't count on is us."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.