Deven Anderson sees the widening net of state laws across the country that restrict the right of Americans to vote as nothing more than a re-emergence of the Jim Crow era of the 19th century.
These new laws enacted in states as farflung as Florida, Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Maine represent nothing more than 21st century equivalents of the poll tax or literacy test — the barriers of an earlier time that powerful whites set up to keep African-Americans away from the polls, this smart, young activist with a group called Black Youth Vote contends.
From rolling back access to early voting, to requiring only very specific forms of identification to be allowed to vote, and more, state governments — largely those run by Republican governors and state legislatures — are making it harder for many Americans to vote.
When he hears conservatives say that they want to “take America back,” Anderson asks, “Do you want to take America to 1866?” which was the post-Civil War period when African Americans and other low-income voters were denied the right to vote.
With unemployment rates at 18 percent or higher, African-American men have a very real motivation to be involved in the direction of the country, he says.
“The situation is very dire. How can voice our discontent with these issues if we don’t have the right to vote?” he asks.
Robert “Biko” Baker, a prominent activist and director of the League of Young Voters Education Fund, agrees with Anderson. He calls it “a situation where young black people are systematically taken out of the civic process.”
“It’s not by accident, as Deven pointed out. It’s on purpose.”
Baker, however, also has these new voting laws on his mind for much more immediate and pragmatic reason: they may well help determine the outcome of next year’s elections.
In Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker and a GOP-dominated state legislature enacted a strict law in which voters must show certain forms of ID in order to vote, just 78 percent of young African-Americans aged 18 to 24 have the proper ID to vote.
“That’s sort of deep if you consider that in 2004, [Democratic presidential candidate] John Kerry won Wisconsin by [only] 14,000 votes.”
There is no doubt that if young African American and other voters are denied access to voting next year, Democrats will lose, Baker says.
“You can look at the numbers, we can cut the numbers, and we can take the young people of color for granted. But if young people of color do not vote in 2012, we will lose the White House,” he says.
The restrictions that these new state-level voting laws represent have only recently become a real issue of concern, opponents say.
‘One Of Our Toughest Fights’
Further, the most common form of these new restrictions are the ones which require voters to show specific forms of ID before being allowed to vote.
“This is one of our toughest fights because it sounds innocuous enough, right? And for the 88 or 89 percent of people who have the right type of ID, it’s hard for them to recognize that there are a heck of a lot of people out there who don’t,” says Megan Donovan, with the Fair Elections Legal Network.
The problem is that these new laws were “crafted very, very, very strictly: not just to say, ‘Show some ID so that we know who you are,’ but in order to vote you need to have X, Y, or Z – and that’s all that’s going to count,” she says.
Most commonly, these laws require a voter to present a valid state driver’s license or passport, and “by and large, they are very narrowly drawn to exclude a lot of common forms of ID,” such as student IDs, she adds.
These restrictions fall heavily on young people, Donovan says.
“It’s well-documented in a number of settings that when you start breaking down who doesn’t have these types of IDs, it’s falls disproportionately on minority voters, as well,” she says.
When the specifics of the voter ID laws differ, they do so “in telling ways,” Donovan says.
For instance, in Texas, an acceptable ID with which to vote is a gun license. “But if you have a student ID, that’s not going to count.”
In Wisconsin, student IDs technically are allowed, but its law “was drawn so carefully that all of the current IDs issued by the universities in Wisconsin don’t actually meet the requirement,” she says.
“Now there’s some work going on to try to make sure student IDs can conform with the new rules,” she adds.
Mandated IDs are not the only new form of voting restriction, however.
Some states, such as Florida, has imposed onerous new limits on
the ability of third-party independent groups to register new voters.
“In Florida, certain minorities and people who speak English as a second language are about twice as likely to rely on third-party groups to get registered to vote,” Donovan says. “New rules have made it very, very difficult for any of those registration drives to happen.”
The League of Women Voters, about as nonpartisan and civic-minded group as there exists, registered new voters for years in the Sunshine State with no serious controversy. However, shortly after state leaders pushed through their new law, the League announced that it likely would shut down its registration activities in the state.
‘Suppress The Vote, Win The Election’
Opponents of the voter ID laws agree that, in general, state Republican leaders crafted them in such a way as to discourage turnout among those voters who tilt toward the Democrats.
“The road to the Senate and the White House runs right through the affected states –- Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Nevada, Virginia –- even California,” says Guy Cecil, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the arm of the Democratic Party tasked with electing Democrats to the U.S. Senate.
“The GOP strategy is simple: Suppress the vote, win the election,” he adds. “The loss of these votes would be more than enough to lose the Senate –- and the White House. If Republicans succeed, they will get just what they’re seeking –- complete and total control of Washington.”
The net effect is to leave Democrats, progressives, and opponents of these voter restrictions to fight back on effectively what are two fronts.
Groups like Donovan’s Fair Elections Legal Network are working to put up citizen referenda in states where they exist in order to repeal them, such as in Maine and Ohio.
However, there also is at least a tactit acknowledgement that those laws likely will still be in place by Election Day next year.
That means educating affected voters beforehand about their state’s law, and helping them obtain the ID that they need in order to go ahead and vote.
Deven Anderson says that his organization has created a program called “Foot Soldiers For Democracy,” to engage black men and youth as poll watchers and poll workers “to make sure your vote is cast correctly.”
It’s also using the Internet to host webinars so that voters and activists across the country have the tools and resources they need.
Baker’s group, similarly, invites voters to sign up for cell-phone text alerts to help them navigate the voter restrictions that they may face.
2012 Election Protection Project
The DSCC launched what it calls the 2012 Election Protection Project to help Democrats.
“We’re leading the effort to prevent this attempt to change the outcome of the 2012 elections,” Cecil says. “In Florida, the DSCC formally requested that the Department of Justice do what it could to stop this. We’re also keeping these developments in mind as we build our campaign strategy. The GOP’s efforts will make our voter outreach more important, and more expensive, in 2012 than ever before.”
Cecil casts Democrats as David in this fight against Goliath, saying the wealthy Koch brothers and their corporate allies bankroll the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the little-seen but powerful conservative organization that has pushed these voter-suppression measures.
“Republicans need to know that they’re not going to get away with changing election outcomes by preventing poor voters, young voters and African Americans from casting ballots,” he says.