NAACP to challenge state voting laws before U.N. panel in Geneva

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 8, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Taking a page from its past, the NAACP will go before a United Nations panel in Switzerland next week to argue that new voting laws approved by some U.S. states violate civil and human rights by suppressing the votes of minorities and others.

A delegation from the venerable civil rights organization will present its case in Geneva on Wednesday before the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body that normally addresses troubles in places such as Libya, Syria and the Ivory Coast.

The Geneva appearance is part of an NAACP strategy rooted in the 1940s and 1950s, when the group looked to the United Nations and the international community for support in its domestic battle for civil rights for blacks and against lynching.

"It was in 1947 that W.E.B. Dubois delivered his speech and appealed to the world at the U.N.," NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous said Thursday. "Now, like then, the principal concern is voting rights. The past year more states in this country have passed more laws pushing more voters out of the ballot box than any point since Jim Crow."

Supporters of the new laws say the action by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a curious move, but one that isn't likely to produce tangible results.

"The NAACP can appeal to whatever body it chooses to — the U.N. doesn't run our elections," said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of True the Vote, a tea party-founded anti-voter fraud group that's seeking to mobilize thousands of volunteers to work as poll watchers and to validate existing voter-registration lists. "It has been talked to death whether or not (requiring) ID disenfranchises anyone."

Jealous acknowledged that the Human Rights Council has no direct authority over American states, but he hopes that it can exert influence through public pressure.

"The power of the U.N. on state governments historically is to shame them and to put pressure on the U.S. government to bring them into line with global standards for democracy, best practices for democracy, that's where we are," he said. "There are plenty of examples — segregation of the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa to the death penalty here in the U.S. — of global outrage having an impact."

Jealous said the U.N. panel will hear Wednesday from two Americans impacted by the new laws: a convicted felon who served her time and a University of Texas student who might not be able to vote this year because of a law approved by the state legislature requiring voters to show government-approved photo identification.

Since last year, 15 states have passed new voting laws; currently 38 states, including some of those 15, are weighing legislation to require people to show government-approved photo identification or provide proof of citizenship before casting their ballots.

Other changes adopted or under consideration by states include restricting voter registration drives by third-party groups such as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP; curtailing or eliminating early voting; doing away with same-day voter registration; and rescinding the right to vote of convicted felons who have served their time.

Proponents of the new laws say they are needed to protect the integrity of the vote, to prevent illegal immigrants from casting ballots, and to clamp down on voter fraud, although several studies indicate that systemic voter fraud is negligible.

The NAACP, civil liberties groups, voting experts and some lawmakers say the new laws smack of poll taxes and literacy tests — devices that in previous generations blocked blacks from voting.

A study last year by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice said the new laws "may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election" by restricting voting access to 5 million people — most of them minority, elderly, young or low-income earners.

States that have adopted new laws account for 171 electoral votes in 2012 — or 63 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, the Brennan Center report said.

The study also found that more than 21 million Americans don't possess government-issued photo identification. The NAACP estimates that about 25 percent of African-Americans nationwide don't possess the proper documentation to meet ID requirements.

The Justice Department is scrutinizing some of the laws under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires approval of voting law changes in 16 mostly Southern states because they have histories of racial discrimination.

The department's Civil Rights Division rejected as discriminatory a South Carolina law requiring voters to show government-issued photo ID. The state filed a lawsuit last month against the Justice Department over its decision.

The department is expected to make a determination on Texas' voting law on Monday. Justice Department officials filed court papers last week challenging Florida's voting law changes.

Opponents of the new laws have been waging a multi-front battle either to get the measures killed or to prepare those potentially affected by the laws for what they will need to do to register and vote.

The Congressional Black Caucus, for example, is scheduled to hold a symposium in May in Washington for a nationwide gathering of ministers to explain how the new laws could impact their efforts to mobilize parishioners to vote.

In 2008, several black churches organized "Souls to the Polls" drives in which worshipers took advantage of early voting periods and went en masse straight from Sunday services to their local polling stations to vote.

CBC members also plan to conduct a multi-city voter education tour in May, and some caucus members will launch voter education bus tours from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

But the NAACP's Geneva journey takes the voting law battle in a different — but familiar — direction.

After World War II revealed the atrocities of the white supremacist Nazi regime, the NAACP saw an opportunity to tell the international community about the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the U.S. In October 1947, the NAACP filed "An Appeal to the World" at the United Nations, penned mostly by Dubois.

The U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights rejected the appeal in December 1947, but the NAACP's New York office was flooded with requests from around the world for copies of the petition, according to a Stanford University timeline on the African-American civil rights struggle.

"When African-Americans went to the U.N. laying out a whole host of human rights violations, countries like India went, 'Whoa, what's going on here," said Carol Anderson, an Emory University professor and author of "Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955." "But because of the Cold War at the time, the U.N. was frightened by this, and the United States worked very hard to keep human rights out of the U.N."

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights movement veteran, said he doesn't know what type of reception the NAACP will receive in Geneva, but he applauds the organization for trying.

"If this is what it takes to bring attention to what's happening, and not just in the South, it's probably what should be done," he said.

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