Editor's Note: In America is producing a documentary, airing in July, which looks at whether a flurry of new state laws are designed to suppress votes, or protect against voting fraud.
By Stephanie Siek, CNN
(CNN) – The voting rights of minorities, students, the poor, the elderly and the disabled are threatened by a concerted campaign to restrict access to the polls, according to a report released by the NAACP and NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America” states that Americans “are experiencing an assault on voting rights that is historic, both in terms of its scope and intensity.”
In 2011, 14 states passed laws that restrict the voting or voter registration process in ways that disproportionately impact minorities, according to the report released Monday. The states are Florida, Texas, Maine, Ohio, Wisconsin, Alabama, Kansas, Tennessee, Iowa, Georgia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Rhode Island and South Carolina. "Dozens” of other laws have been proposed around the country.
The measures aren't discriminatory in nature – they don't explicitly restrict voting access of African-Americans or Latinos, for example. But minorities, students, the poor, the elderly and the disabled, they are more likely to be negatively affected. These groups are more likely to live in poverty and change addresses often. Many don't have access to personal identity documents such as birth certificates. Many live without a driver’s licenses or reliable transportation, or have had their voting rights removed due to felony convictions.
Among the report’s findings:
“Instead of adopting democracy-expanding principles, several states are seeking to constrict the democratic process for the very voters who turned out in historic numbers in 2008,” said Ryan P. Haygood, an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney who worked on the report.
On Saturday, International Human Rights Day, the NAACP and other groups will lead a march to United Nations Headquarters in New York City from the Manhattan offices of David and Charles Koch, the industrialist brothers who donate to conservative groups that support voter ID laws, Haygood said.
The report calls the laws “coordinated efforts to suppress the growing voting strength of communities of color, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the young. It says the laws are part of a historical cycle of expanding rights for minorities, especially blacks, followed by attempts to restrict those rights. As an example, it cites the days of poll taxes and literacy tests that followed the passage of the 15th amendment, which gave former slaves the right to vote.
Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the legislation could have an impact on the outcome of the 2012 elections. Gaskins was not involved with the NAACP report, but researches voter rights issues.
Of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect the next president, 193 are in states that passed laws on voting, voter registration, third-party voter registration drives, poll worker qualifications, re-enfranchisement of nonviolent felons, photo ID requirements, or who eliminated or reduced the days available for early and absentee voting, Gaskins said.
The people affected by the restrictions are mostly groups that tend to vote for Democratic candidates, and turnout among them could be reduced due to the voting restrictions, Gaskins said.
Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Civil Justice Reform Initiative at the conservative Heritage Foundation, rejected the premise of the report, saying that there was no unbiased evidence that the laws it describes would disenfranchise voters. He added that most of the laws were supported by a broad majority of voters in the states where they had been passed.
“I think it’s frankly kind of a ridiculous report,” von Spakovsky said, "because all the claims it makes are the same kind of predictions and claims made by the Brennan Center for years now, all of which have been proven untrue.”
In "Without Proof: The Unpersuasive Case Against Voter Identification," von Spakovsky refuted the findings of a 2006 Brennan Center survey which claimed similar findings as the NAACP report - namely, that millions of voters were at risk of disenfranchisement because they either didn't have government-issued photo ID or couldn't access the documents needed to obtain it. He said the "dubious" methodology of the survey canceled out its results.
"Based entirely on one survey of only 987 'voting age American citizens,' the [Brennan Center] report contains no information on how the survey determined whether a respondent was actually an American citizen. The survey could have included illegal and legal aliens, two categories of individuals that are not allowed to vote," von Spakovsky wrote.
In Georgia, which has one of the oldest and strictest laws regarding what voters must present to prove eligibility, turnout among African-American voters had increased in 2008, four years after the voter ID law was passed, von Spakovsky said.
The 2008 election was also prefaced by a massive get-out-the-vote campaign within the African-American community, and it was the first election in U.S.history in which a nonwhite candidate - Barack Obama - was a party nominee.
In the end, Gaskins said, the motivation behind the laws – be it prevention of fraud or intentional discrimination – isn’t what matters to the next election.
“Does it matter whether the ultimate intention was to disenfranchise millions of minority voters, or does it matter that it did?” Gaskins asked. “At some point, it is no longer a solution when you’re impacting so many American citizens.”
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