Editor’s note: In America follows the fight to win an essential voting bloc in Nevada, a battleground state with one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the nation. Soledad O’Brien reports in “Latino in America: Courting Their Vote” on CNN TV at 8 p.m. ET Sunday.
By Soledad O'Brien with Rose Arce and Khara Lewin, CNN
In the days before a voter registration deadline, Latino groups are usually wrapping up their outreach efforts aimed at driving potential voters to the polls on Election Day. But this election season, Rafael Collazo led a sparse team of volunteers into the streets of Philadelphia, scrambling to get voters he wishes he could have signed up months ago.
"We sort of plan our campaign so that we're not in an extreme rush to the very end," said Collazo, who works for the National Council of La Raza. But this year, his tiny team is running into row houses dotted with Puerto Rican flags, shouting in English and Spanish about the need to register and vote. Team members have visited high schools and tried to rally apathetic youth who would be voting for the first time, if only they would register with the state.
The efforts were delayed because, instead of just registering voters, La Raza and other Latino voter registration groups spent months making sure voters would have the right IDs to show at the polls - though that statewide requirement was put on hold by a judge last week.
So after months of driving people to state offices to get IDs, enduring long lines at motor vehicle departments, and looking for elusive paperwork, these community organizations are now back to registering voters, just a few days before the Pennsylvania deadline. The state accepts new registrants through Tuesday. Monday is Columbus Day, a federal holiday.
"We've never seen such an unprecedented experience as 2012," said Cynthia Figueroa, director of Congreso, which works in Pennsylvania Latino communities. "What was created around the voter IDs and the emphasizing that there was even any voter ID fraud, then the subsequent laws that were passed, created tremendous barriers for individuals in the community. The work and energy that I've seen or the attention around the elections this year, I've never experienced in the time that I have been working in this community."
Activists like Collazo and Figueroa feel the loss of time registering voters acutely this year.
The Pew Hispanic Center released data showing 24 million Latinos are of voting age, a 22% jump over 2008, when Latino turnout came in just under 50%. But the same study estimated that as many as 600,000 had fallen off the voter rolls between 2008 and 2010. Activists saw an opportunity to get Latino voters back into the election process in a way that would increase their political power.
The evolution of the voting process in the last few months sheds light on why Latino organizations doing voter registration may have fallen off track. Registering and voting in Pennsylvania used to be less complicated. As recently as this past spring, you just filled out a registration form and mailed it to your county. Only new voters were asked for identification.
Then in March, the controversial voter ID law was passed by Pennsylvania's Republican-dominated legislature. The law meant that to vote in Pennsylvania, you had to present a Pennsylvania drivers license, a state nondriver photo ID, or a passport, military, college or nursing home ID with a photograph and expiration date. The requirement set off accusations that the law was created to suppress minority voters because they were less likely to have those forms of identification. The Advancement Project estimated that one in six Latinos in Pennsylvania might not have the right ID when they showed up at the polls.
Those accusations intensified in June when Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, listing legislative victories for his party, said: "Voter ID, which is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: Done." The ACLU and other voting rights organizations sued.
Latino activists focused on getting people the right ID and hoped that an added requirement wouldn't further deepen voter apathy.
"A lot of the elders and individuals who don't own their own cars, who have difficulty getting around, their ability to travel back and forth and ensure that they have accurate and proper documentation, to not be turned around at one of the Department of Motor Vehicles places who is issuing their photo IDs, was a challenge in and of itself," Figueroa said. "Then we saw a lot of people struggling with not understanding the law once it was introduced, changed a number of times, and it was a 'Who's on first?'"
Their biggest challenges were with the elderly and the young, who often did not have the right identification, nor the resources and time to get it.
"A lot of the centers for the elderly may not have records, accurate records, of where they were born. So that presented another level of frustration for the patient. The other aspect was now that you have all of this information, what are things that are considered as official residency, proof of residency. That kept changing," said Miguel Concepcion, a civic engagement coordinator with the Delaware Valley Community Health Center.
It kept changing because the state made efforts to expand what qualifies as an acceptable ID. Ron Ruman, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said Pennsylvania was now accepting birth certificates and proofs of residency like utility bills. That helped some Latino voters, but not others.
"The Latino community is a very young community in the sense of our growth in the United States. Some of our folks don't own homes. They rent, they lease and they have cell phone bills. Cell phone bills were not an acceptable document or an acceptable bill of proof of address," said Concepcion.
Concepcion, who is usually out registering voters, ended up seeking ID for himself. He had lost his driver's license months ago and had not rushed out to get another because he lives in Philadelphia, where public transit makes it possible to get around without driving. He had credit cards and other ID but nothing that qualified. So he tried to get his birth certificate so he could start the process of getting an ID.
But Concepcion got tripped up by something affecting all Puerto Ricans born on the island. Puerto Rico is in the process of issuing new birth certificates for everyone, a complicated process that he found many other Pennsylvania Latinos were facing. "We had scheduled a family trip to Puerto Rico, not specifically for the purpose of getting my birth certificate, but ended up taking a lot of time just to get my birth certificate. Because I had requested it online, I was given a period of three weeks, which for me was unacceptable," he said. Concepcion finally got it, but by then the state had expanded the rules to include many more forms of ID - so he didn't need it after all.
Latino organizations resumed voter registration drives with limited staffs and budgets, adding on the task of driving people who didn't have ID to state offices where they could get one. "The many changes that have taken place and the implementation slowed us down," said Concepcion. "We were at a meeting one time where (when) we walked in there were seven identifications. By the time that meeting finished an hour later, we find out that there was an eighth identification that was coming out," he said.
John Fund, who authored a book on voter fraud, "Who's Counting," said the voter ID laws in Pennsylvania "not only protect against voter impersonation, they protect against people voting twice, they protect against people voting in more than one state, ... against noncitizens voting, because they're much less likely to show up with an ID or have an ID. So it does impact the integrity of the election."
Thirty states besides Pennsylvania have voter ID rules, most allowing people without ID to fill out provisional ballots if they show up at the polls with identification that doesn't qualify. Pennsylvania was one of five states whose laws were challenged in court.
Ruman said there has been no evidence of widespread past voter fraud and that state officials have been working on getting voters to get identification to carry forward with the new law. When a Pennsylvania judge ruled Tuesday that state officials could not enforce the new law for this presidential election, Latino activists were only somewhat pleased. Figueroa said it's good for Latinos to get ID as a long-term goal, but she wishes making that happen had not taken the place of registering voters in a crucial election. She lamented the loss of time.
"The Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition and Congreso have been working hard to make sure that when we're talking about the voter ID laws, we're simultaneously talking about registration. There's been so much energy around the voter ID law that just looking at registering new voters and ensuring everybody's prepared to vote, unfortunately I don't think was the top priority," she said.
"And the fact that post the Columbus Day holiday is really the deadline in Pennsylvania to be registered to vote is a challenge. ... The individuals we may have not reached because we were focusing energy and time in terms of this really much greater significant civil rights issue - I hope doesn't have an impact."