The War on Black Voters

Voters in Georgia (Alexandra Garcia/the Washington Post)
Voters in Georgia (Alexandra Garcia/the Washington Post)

A curious phenomenon occurred in 2011. As if in concert, 40 Republican-controlled state legislatures introduced changes to their voting procedures. The laws read as minor tweaks and adjustments, and they vary from state to state, but they all have the outcome of making it harder to vote. Incidentally, the efforts have been strongest in battleground states that were competitive in the 2008 election. Among the people most impacted are millions of eligible African-American, Latino and youth voters who supported President Obama and Democratic candidates in droves in 2008.


Or perhaps that effect is not so incidental.

"This is not a coincidence," said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, one of several organizations to cast the laws as a coordinated assault on the voting rights, and political power, of people of color. "Not only because of the states where we're seeing [new voting laws] pop up, but it's also not a mistake because of the way that this has been done."

It Started With Photo-ID Laws …

For months, organizations including the NAACP, the Democratic National Committee and Advancement Project have been ringing the alarm about the unprecedented wave of laws demanding strict forms of government-issued photo identification as a new prerequisite to vote. They've repeatedly argued that the legislation — which has passed in eight states with dozens more pending — acutely disenfranchises African-American voters, 25 percent of whom do not possess the required photo ID (compared with 8 percent of whites).

They've pointed out the following: Prohibitive costs for low-income people to obtain an ID. The refusal of some states to accept state-issued student ID. The public suggestion from a GOP strategist that suppressing the African-American vote is "exactly why we need voter-ID [laws]." The added obstacle of having to first supply a birth certificate or other documentation. The fact that with a grand total of nine suspected cases of voter fraud since 2000, an individual is far more likely to be struck by lightning or to report seeing a UFO.

"We've heard the Republican talking points that these laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud," said Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee. "The truth is that every major investigation into voter fraud, including a five-year investigation by the Bush Justice Department, has arrived at the same conclusion: There is almost none."


Other Rollbacks on Voting Rights?

Photo-ID laws, however, are just one arm of various proposals around the country that create new barriers to voting. Other efforts include:

* Restrictions on voter registration drives: Florida and Texas passed laws placing stringent requirements and penalties on groups — such as churches and community associations — that conduct voter-registration drives. In Florida these groups must now, among other requirements, submit all completed registration forms to the state within 48 hours or face fines of up to $1,000 — per voter.


Unable to sufficiently work under the tight deadlines or risk the steep financial burden caused by the new rules, many third-party voter-registration groups, such as the League of Women Voters, have simply shut down operations in the state. Because minority voters are far more likely to register through drives — in Florida, 20 percent of African Americans and 15 percent of Latinos registered to vote that way in 2008, compared with just 6 percent of whites — these laws clearly stand to diminish their political participation.

* Requirements to prove citizenship to register: New legislation in Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee effectively challenges the citizenship of anyone who registers to vote, requiring people to show documented proof such as a birth certificate, passport or naturalization papers.


It's a requirement that further hinders voter-registration drives, which are usually set up in public spaces where communities congregate. "I can't do that work if the person I try to register doesn't have proof of citizenship on them at that point," said Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director of Voto Latino. "How many people walk around with their birth certificates? It's impeding at the very basic level of what our democratic principles lie on." The requirement is also uniquely burdensome to elderly African Americans who were born when legal segregation prevented access to hospitals and, thus, were never issued birth certificates.

* Reductions to early voting: Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia enacted laws to reduce early voting — states where, in 2008, an average of 30 percent of voters cast early ballots, with African Americans twice as likely to use early voting than whites. In North Carolina, for example, a new 15-day early voting period was responsible for increasing voter participation by 10 percent in 2008, with most of those voters favoring President Obama. This year early voting was reduced from 15 to nine days, with new restrictions on the hours that counties can open polling locations.


"In Florida, the state Legislature took away the last Sunday before Election Day, which was a very important day in the black community throughout the state," said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, explaining a popular "Souls to the Polls" campaign in which African-American churches rallied caravans to get their congregations to vote on that Sunday. "That particular Sunday was expressly taken out by the state legislature."

* Reducing voting rights of people with felony convictions: This year Florida and Iowa adopted measures to permanently block people convicted of felonies from voting. In both states, executive orders that had previously restored the voting rights of such individuals after they'd finished serving their sentences were reversed, disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of citizens for life.


"This disenfranchisement of voting rights continues to disproportionately affect African-American men," said Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, who added that nationally, millions of ex-felons have completed their sentences, work, pay taxes and raise families in their communities. "An estimated 5.3 million people in this country are denied the right to vote due to past criminal convictions."

Voting rights of people with felony convictions have also been rolled back in Iowa, which passed a new law requiring those who have completed their sentences to apply to have their rights restored — on the taxing condition that they pay all outstanding financial obligations, including any fines or court costs. 


Calls to Action

To help educate citizens, community leaders and election and judicial officials about this rash of restrictive voting laws — the dozens passed, and the many more still up for consideration — the NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Democratic National Committee recently released comprehensive reports analyzing the measures state by state. Both organizations also have on-the-ground chapters nationwide engaged in aggressive voter-education campaigns.


"In November we saw a major victory for voting rights when the people of Maine vetoed a regressive law that sought to end their nearly 40-year-old tradition of Election Day registration," said Wasserman Schultz of early successes from the DNC ground game. "We've had similar efforts around the country. In Ohio, they are well on their way to gathering enough signatures to veto a Republican statute that restricts voters' access to the polls."

In addition to delivering their report to the United Nations, the NAACP is also holding a "Stand for Freedom" march and rally on Dec. 10 at the UN in New York City. "We need to encourage people of all colors in this country to see this voting rights attack for what it is," said Jealous of their UN focus. "Far right-wing conservatives are trying to attack minority voting rights at a time when people of color are on the verge of becoming the majority in this country … The UN has a committee for the eradication of all forms of racial discrimination, and we will make sure that they review this."


Meanwhile, the Advancement Project is setting its sights on the U.S. Department of Justice. In November it launched a petition urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to oppose restrictive voting laws, both in states governed under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — which requires certain states to submit proposed changes to their voting and election laws to either the Justice Department or the federal district court in Washington, D.C., for preclearance — as well as other jurisdictions. The organization plans to deliver the petition, which has nearly 20,000 signatures (with close to 100,000 more on identical petitions sent by Voto Latino, AFL-CIO and other partners), to the Justice Department on Dec. 15.

"Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is under attack by the right, so [the Justice Department] is going to be very careful and ask for all of the evidence they need to show violations," said Dianis of the department's meticulous investigation into the potential impact of these laws. "Part of what we want to do is call upon them to step up."


On Dec. 13, Holder will deliver a speech in Texas about these voting laws, so their fate may be known soon. Until then, advocates remain vigilant. "Our role is still to fight for an impartial, unabridged right to vote," said William J. Barber II, chair of the NAACP Political Action and Legislative Affairs Committee. "We must fight back against any attempt to suppress, segregate, isolate or steal the power and potential of our vote."

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.