Rush is on to prepare Americans for new voting laws

Voters in the booth
Voters in the booth Akron Beacon Journal/MCT

Less than two weeks before Americans go to the polls, a scramble is on to educate voters and election officials nationwide about a spate of new voting laws that could affect turnout and impact key gubernatorial and Senate races.

The hodgepodge of education efforts, in states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin, are complicated by an array of court decisions in recent days and weeks that have either struck down, upheld or altered portions of the new laws.

“Clearly, voters don’t understand the new laws,” said Tram Nguyen, co-director of the Virginia New Majority, a liberal community group. “Outreach isn’t what it should be.”

What’s in and what’s out regarding the laws – several of which include government-issued photo identification requirements to cast ballots – is spawning confusion among voters and election officials, some of whom already have begun training their mostly volunteer Election Day workforce on how to carry out the rules at the polls.

“The laws are literally being changed while election officials are conducting training,” said David Becker, director of the Election Initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trust. “This year has been somewhat unusual because of the number of high-profile voting cases that have gone to courts and the Supreme Court.”

Texas is a prime example. The Supreme Court ruled Saturday that the state could implement its voter photo ID law after a federal district court judge earlier this month struck down the law, saying it was adopted “with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.”

Days later, the federal judge issued an injunction blocking the law from being used in the Nov. 4 elections. The Supreme Court sanctioned Texas to move forward with its law, which requires voters to submit one of several forms of photo ID – from a driver’s license to a concealed weapon license – in order to cast a ballot.

The court also has recently intervened in Ohio and North Carolina, reversing trial judges and appellate rulings to allow new voting laws to take effect in those states on Election Day.

While the justices voted to let Texas, Ohio and North Carolina proceed with their new laws, they blocked Wisconsin from implementing its voter photo ID requirement on Oct. 9 without explanation.

In all, seven states – including Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Kansas and Virginia – will employ strict photo ID requirements on Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That means voters without proper identification will be allowed cast provisional ballots but must take additional steps to verify their identity after the election for their votes to count.

States such as South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Idaho and Missouri will have less stringent photo ID and non-photo ID voting laws in place on Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The wave of court rulings and the differences in state laws have left voters flummoxed, according to Myrna Perez, a deputy director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which monitors voting laws nationwide.

“There’s a decent amount of confusion and there needs to be good information coming from election officials and groups like us,” she said. “We’re short on time. Early voting has already started in Texas.”

Responding to a rapidly ticking clock, voting rights and civil rights groups are stepping up their efforts to inform and educate voters about what they’ll face in their states on Nov. 4.

In North Carolina, for example, NAACP officials planned scheduled statewide marches to the polls on Thursday, the first day of early voting in that state.

The Supreme Court issued a ruling earlier this month that allowed North Carolina to proceed with new voting rules this election cycle that ended same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting.

“What we’re saying is because this legislation denies counting out-of-precinct ballots, we’re saying go to early voting because it doesn’t matter which precinct you’re in,” said The Rev. William Barber II, the NAACP’s North Carolina president. “We’re in full get-out-the vote mode in North Carolina.”

Wednesday, the organization launched voting ads on African-American radio stations across the state, and it intends to distribute 200,000 voter guides that contain information about North Carolina’s new voting laws along with information on the candidates.

“We’re also doing direct calls to all 286,000 African-Americans who voted in 2012 and 2008 that didn’t vote in 2010. We’re doing direct attempts through robo calls to reach them.”

In Virginia, the Virginia New Majority is working off a list of voters who don’t have a license issued from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles in attempts to reach out to them about the state’s new photo ID voting requirement.

Volunteers are sending 300,000 postcards and fliers outlining the state’s laws, and volunteers are going door to door and conducting phone bank calls in Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish in an attempt to tell voters who don’t speak English about what they’ll need to vote.