Advocates Urge Congress to Fight State Voting Changes

Advocates want Congress to pass legislation to combat new state laws that they say will disenfranchise young, elderly, minority, disabled and low-income voters.
by | November 15, 2011 AT 6:00 PM

Five million. That's the number of eligible voters that could find it harder to cast their ballot in the 2012 elections. It's also the figure that advocates against state voting law changes repeatedly echoed during a Capitol Hill forum on new state voting laws that several House Democrats, including Representatives John Conyers, Steny Hoyer, Robert Brady, Jerrold Nadler, and Keith Ellison called Monday.

The NAACP, ACLU and League of Women Voters, among other research and advocacy organizations asked lawmakers to pass legislation to protect voters' rights. They also wanted Congress to pressure the Department of Justice to deny approval to the states that need it for their new laws to take effect. So far, this includes Alabama, South Carolina and Texas, which are among the nine states that need federal approval for any changes to voting laws under the Voting Rights Act.

In 2011, 14 states enacted 21 measures requiring individuals to present photo identification or proof of citizenship to vote, eliminating same-day registration, reducing early voting and increasing regulations for voter registration drives. Critics say it would discourage minority, disabled, and low-income residents from casting their votes.

Civil rights and advocacy organizations are seeking passage of the Voter Access Protection Act (H.R. 3316), the Same Day Voter Registration Act (H.R. 3317), the Voter Opportunity and Technology Enhancement Rights Act (H.R. 108), and the Democracy Restoration Act (H.R. 2212).

Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program for the Brennan Center for Justice and author of the Voting Law Changes in 2012 report, which is the first comprehensive look at the proposed and enacted changes to state voting laws that have been sweeping Republican-dominated legislatures this year, warned that another wave of changes is still likely to come since 43 bills restricting how and when people vote are still pending in 23 states. The Brennan Center is a nonpartisan think tank that also carries out legislative and legal advocacy for the preservation of democracy.

"The right to vote is the very foundation of our democracy and it is under attack," said Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters, during testimony. "These new laws threaten to silence the voices of those least heard." The League of Women Voters has suspended its voter registration drives in Florida because new regulations have made it too costly.

Not only will these new laws cost much more to implement, according to panelists, but they will also bring new costs to voters in states where people, particularly the elderly and college students, must obtain government-issued photo IDs -- something 11 percent of Americans don't have, according to the Brennan report.

"Our country promotes itself as a beacon of democracy throughout the world," but these laws are reversing that claim and creating new obstacles for people to vote, said Hilary Shelton of the NAACP, who referred to the voting law changes as a "modern-day poll tax."

According to panelists, studies show that the majority of early voters are low-income and minority people who cannot vote on Election Day because they have to work. Reducing early voting -- which Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia did this year -- may make it harder for them to participate in future elections.

"When I take off Tuesday to vote, nobody docks my pay," said Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "That's not true for everyone."

Another criticism raised was the fact that under a new Texas law, a college student ID will not count as a photo ID, but a concealed handgun license would.

"You have to be a very mean spirited and ideologically warped person to believe that this is right and that this is fair," said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.

Although most governors signed off on changes to voting laws this year, a handful vetoed such legislation. Governors in Montana, Missouri, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Carolina vetoed voter ID legislation; while Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer also vetoed a bill that would have eliminated same-day registration.

But voters are fighting back. Mainers voted earlier this month to repeal a new state law that would have eliminated same-day registration. Missouri voters are taking their fight on the legality of the state's voter ID amendment to the ballot in 2012.