After Unprecedented GOP Effort, New Voting Laws Could Reshape Electorate in 2012

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Damian Dovarganes / AP

A voter inserts his paper ballot at the Belvedere Park polling booth in East Los Angeles, Nov. 2, 2010.

Last Tuesday, the Obama Justice Department filed a brief arguing that Texas Republicans’ proposal to redraw the state’s electoral map was explicitly designed to dilute the power of minority voters. It was an explosive charge, especially given that Texas Governor Rick Perry, who signed the redistricting bill into law, is angling for President Obama’s job. But the incident passed with little national attention, just another star in a constellation of new Republican-led efforts to overhaul voting laws in states where key Democratic constituencies – African Americans, Latinos and youths – comprise a significant share of the electorate. “There’s a national assault on voting rights,” says Wendy Weiser, a lawyer at New York University’s non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice, “the most significant assault in decades.”

It’s not just Texas where the Obama Administration has gotten involved. Earlier this year, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law a sweeping revision of his state’s voting rules. In accordance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Florida initially sought the Justice Department’s approval before implementing the new measure. But on Oct. 24, Florida’s appointed secretary of state Kurt S. Browning, a Republican, asked a federal judicial panel to validate key provisions ahead of Florida’s Jan. 31 presidential primary, without DOJ’s approval. Among the controversial provisions: Individual counties will no longer be required to offer voting on the Sunday before Election Day. This, critics say, explicitly targets turnout efforts by African-American churches – commonly known as “Souls to the Polls” – that has helped blacks account for one-third of all votes cast on Sundays before Election Day. Another provision requires third-party groups authorized to participate in voter registration drives to submit completed forms within 48 hours of filling them out, rather than 10 days, or risk steep fines. Florida’s League of Women Voters is challenging the provision, and it has suspended voter registration drives for the first time in its seven-decade history. In the meantime, for this year’s Nov. 1 elections, the new law will be in effect in all but five counties – including Hillsborough, of which Tampa is the county seat. State officials insist average voters won’t notice the changes. Nevertheless, Deirdre Macnab, president of Florida’s League of Women Voters, says, “People are confused.”

Of course, early voting doesn’t just happen on Sundays. For many cash-strapped municipalities, mail-balloting is a less expensive alternative to renting and staffing polling stations. In 2008, nearly one-third of all ballots cast nationwide arrived before Election Day, many of them by mail. In 11 states, including Arizona, Florida and North Carolina, roughly half of all votes arrived early. Early voting is also credited with helping to seal Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 by driving record turnout among minority voters, a trend that emerged after 2002’s Help America Vote Act. Republicans are now taking unprecedented steps to reverse the shift to early voting. In Ohio, officials are considering a measure backed by Governor John Kasich that would cut the window for early voting by more than half. On Tuesday, most of Colorado’s 64 counties will hold elections exclusively by mail. In September, Colorado’s elected secretary of state, Republican Scott Gessler, sued the clerk of Democratic-leaning Denver County to stop mailing ballots to voters the state deems “inactive” for having failed to participate in the 2010 elections. The county clerk’s office successfully argued that such efforts would pose unnecessary hurdles for prospective elderly, minority and low-income voters. Observers expect the issue to persist in the courts, and legislature, in the run-up to the 2012 elections.

Perhaps the most intense ballot battle is over voter ID laws. In 2011 alone, 20 state legislatures considered instituting requirements for citizens to show various forms of identification at the polls. New ID laws have been passed in Alabama, South Carolina and Texas, and could deter as many as 5 million people nationwide from casting ballots next year. Conservative advocates argue that such measures offer protection against fraud – especially as ballots leave government officials’ hands. The truth is, fraud, and voter irregularity in general, remains rare. Liberal critics worry the requirements will thwart participation among historically disenfranchised groups. One survey suggests that one-quarter of voting-age blacks lack a government-issued photo ID – nearly three times the share of whites. The new laws will have a far broader effect: Married women who haven’t legally changed their surnames. Elderly people who can’t travel to polling stations. People who can’t afford the cost of government-issued IDs. “You’ll have more and more poor people, and working people, left out the political equation,” warns Hilary O. Shelton, head of the NAACP’s Washington office.

In Washington, Democratic coalitions — from the Blue Dog moderates, to the Congressional Black Caucus – are wrestling with how to respond to this new wave of voting laws. Democrats are running petition drives to challenge the laws. One proposal floated by Rep. Maxine Waters would launch a legal defense fund for black churches facing IRS scrutiny over their voter registration efforts, a tactic mirroring one used by evangelical groups such as the Alliance Defense Fund, which has reportedly spent some $32 million to protect pastors who preach about politics. But many Democrats are wary of engaging in so-called “street politics.” Memories of the uproar over ACORN, a national grassroots group accused of submitting fraudulent voter registration data during the 2008 election season, remain fresh. But given their dire electoral outlook, Democrats may need to employ every tactic to get their core constituencies to the polls.