PHILADELPHIA — As legal challenges to voter identification laws slowly wind their way through the courts, opponents of the controversial measures aren’t just sitting around waiting for judicial relief.
They’re hitting the streets in a grassroots effort to make sure affected voters have the documents they’ll need to cast their ballots in November.
“When you put Americans’ backs against the wall, we tend to rise and we tend to fight a little harder,” said John Jordan, an NAACP elections consultant in Philadelphia, where a new state law requires voters to have government-issued photo identification documents.
From Pennsylvania to South Carolina to Florida, a loose network of civic, religious, labor and civil rights groups are working to find, educate and register voters who might not meet eligibility requirements under a spate of new Republican-backed laws that opponents say create new barriers to voting in the name of stopping fraud.
With the election just six weeks away, early voting underway in most states and only a few days remaining for voters to register, the get-out-the-vote efforts have taken on increasing urgency.
Whether it’s knocking on doors, passing out fliers, collecting petition signatures or driving voters to get the proper documents, volunteers are working furiously to counter the new laws that disproportionately impact the elderly, poor and minority voters.
In Ohio, volunteers have traveled by van to nine cities, registering 3,500 black voters.
In Georgia, a group has helped more than 100 Atlanta homeless shelter residents get photo IDs in the last month.
And in 33 Florida counties, hundreds of black churches are moving their "souls to the polls" early voting campaign to Sunday, Oct. 28, after election laws eliminated Sunday voting on the weekend before Election Day and imposed other restrictions as well.
“We’re asking churches if they will stand together and continue to make the statement that you will not suppress our vote,” said Salandra Benton of Titusville, Fla., head of the Florida affiliate of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
The federal courts already have weighed in, striking down a Texas voter ID law because it would have hurt minorities and placed “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.” A South Carolina law is being challenged as well.
In Philadelphia, more than 140 organizations have formed the Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition to help residents prepare for the new law, which is also under legal challenge.
When 53-year-old Gregory Jackson of Portland, Ore., heard that 750,000 Pennsylvanians may lack the required ID, he took a week of vacation and flew to Philadelphia to help with voter outreach.
An energy efficiency specialist, he spent a week stuffing information packets, attending voter education events, registering voters at a soup kitchen and soliciting volunteers for coalition events.
Jackson and an NAACP worker helped nearly 150 people register to vote, while making sure they had the proper identification. He left town with a hoarse voice but a sense of satisfaction.
“I talked to a lot of people,” Jackson said. “There were a lot who just flat out said they weren’t going to vote . . . because their vote’s not heard. And we turned a bunch of those people around and got them to register and got them to commit to getting their valid IDs.”
Since 2011, Pennsylvania and seven other states have passed voter laws requiring government-issued photo IDs, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin did so as well. Mississippi voters passed a similar measure by referendum, and voters in Minnesota will have the chance to do the same in the November elections.
Meanwhile, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia passed laws that restrict early voting opportunities.
Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee now require proof of citizenship, like a birth certificate, to register or vote.
Florida, Illinois and Texas passed laws restricting voter registration drives, while Wisconsin and Florida made it harder for people who relocate to stay on the voter rolls and cast a ballot.
Polls have shown that Americans generally support having voters provide photo identification. Republicans say the laws are needed to stop voter fraud.
“The unfortunate reality is that . . . election fraud has been woven into the political fabric of the community, tainting elections, skewing results, disenfranchising legal voters and compounding voter cynicism for far too long,” wrote Horace Cooper, adjunct fellow at the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research.
Last week, Arizona officials announced that nine people were under investigation for illegally voting twice – in Arizona and another state – in the 2010 general election.
“When we find the rare instance of voter fraud, we vigorously prosecute the offenders to the fullest extent of the law,” said Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett.
But numerous studies and investigations have shown that voter fraud is, as Bennett said, a rare occurrence. An exhaustive analysis of more than 2,000 reported cases since 2000 found only 10 instances of voter impersonation, the only kind of voter fraud that the new laws would prevent.
That’s one case for every 14.6 million eligible voters, according to the study by News21, a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Republican officials made headlines earlier this year with claims that nearly 12,000 non-citizens were on the voter rolls in Colorado and up to 180,000 in Florida.
But the Colorado numbers actually ended up amounting to a mere 141, or 0.004 percent of roughly 3.5 million registered voters. The actual non-citizen totals in Florida were just as paltry – 207, or 0.002 percent of their 11 million-plus voters.
Those scant findings are why many critics believe that the new voter ID laws are at best, a solution in search of a problem; at worst, a thinly veiled effort to suppress Democratic voters.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Turzai did little to dissuade them after he told the state GOP in June that the new state voter ID law would help Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney “win the state of Pennsylvania.”
The Brennan Center estimates that in 2008, 11 percent, or more than 21 million U.S. citizens, lacked state-issued photo identification.
But 25 percent – about 5.5 million – of African American voters, a key element of the Democratic base, didn’t have the documents, according to Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Voter ID laws and others that restrict voting opportunities could prevent or discourage up to 10 million Latinos from voting and registering, according to a new study by The Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights group.
The lawyers’ committee has established a national hotline to answer questions about voting rights and voter suppression – 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683). The group also provides a smart phone app – available at app.866ourvote.org – that lets users register to vote, find their polling place, verify their registration and review state voting rules and regulations.
In Ohio, where the Justice Department is fighting Republican plans to restrict early voting, volunteers from the Unity Ohio Coalition have traveled to nine cities, doing voter outreach in public housing projects, church parking lots and community centers.
Using laptops, the group has registered 3,500 people to vote and screened 35,000 to make sure they’re properly registered and haven’t been erroneously purged from the rolls.
When disillusioned voters tell coalition member Deidra Reese that their votes don’t matter, she politely responds: “If your vote doesn’t matter, why are they working so hard to take it away?”