Monday, September 10, 2012

Voting rights’ big assists

THE STATE of Pennsylvania is set to be the next big battleground over voters’ rights. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports today that opponents of the state’s new voter ID law will go before the state Supreme Court on Thursday.

“It is the final venue for the lawsuit under the state Constitution after a lower court in August declined to halt the requirement that voters show certain forms of photo identification at the polls,” Karen Langley reports.

Actions taken by federal judges in the previous ten days or so give reason for cautious optimism. What a difference one week made.

With a series of stunning smackdowns from the federal bench curbing or invalidating voter ID laws in two battleground states (and with a District Court review pending in a third), voting rights gained dramatic momentum in the runup to what’s been predicted for months to be a shave-close presidential election — one that, with relatively few undecided voters, is expected to hinge on voter turnout.

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On Aug. 27, a U.S. District Court judge issued an injunction against Ohio’s “wrong precinct” law, ruling that the state cannot purge provisional ballots on the basis of poll-worker error. “[R]ecent experience proves that our elections are decided, all too often, by improbably slim margins—not just in local races … but even for the highest national offices,” Judge Algenon L. Marbley wrote in his decision. “Any potential threat to the integrity of the franchise, no matter how small, must therefore be treated with utmost seriousness.”

On Aug. 28, three U.S. District Court judges blocked Texas’ redistricting plan, citing undue racial impact. The judge ruled that the state “failed to carry its burden” showing that the redistricting plans “do not have the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote no account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

On Aug. 29, a federal judge permanently blocked Florida’s more restrictive rules on third party voter registration groups — a big win for such grassroots orgs as Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters, which have been hampered by unworkable preparation deadlines imposed by the state. Wednesday’s ruling, which Florida will not appeal, follows a May injunction by U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Hinkle, who barred enforcement of part of HB 1355, the state’s 2011 exclusionary election law, saying that a 48-hour deadline for third-party groups to turn in new voter registration forms is “harsh and impractical.”

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ON AUG. 30, in a swift and startling action, a federal judge blocked Texas’ voter ID law outright, saying the law places “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.”

And not to be outdone on the impact scale, District Court Judge Peter C. Economus on Aug. 31 overturned the provisions of Ohio’s voter ID law that curbed early voting, saying that early voting “places all Ohio voters on equal standing.” Three days of early voting eliminated by the law have been restored.

South Carolina may be next. The state voter ID law the NAACP called “little more than a 21st Century poll tax” is undergoing an aggressive review by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia; the panel upheld objections from civil rights organizations that state lawyers had engaged in leading questions and hearsay to make their case.

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The forecast for full participation in the 2012 presidential election has been downbeat in recent months, to say the least. Several states with Republican governors and legislatures have rammed through bills that slightly or severely limit access to voter registration.

According to conservative rationale, tighter access to the polls will prevent voter fraud, but the uniformity of the restrictions proposed or now law reflect what’s widely seen as a Republican tactic to suppress voter turnout in November (and on the basis of actual cases of voter fraud, a solution in search of a problem). The rulings of recent days soundly reject that rationale.

A number of groups have had a hand in the progress being made. The Advancement Project and the American Civil Liberties Union have lately taken point in the effort, as well as the NAACP, the nation’s emeritus civil rights organization.

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THE RECENT rulings dovetail with a strategy “for defending and expanding the electorate” outlined by NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous in a January interview with The Root.

“In 2012 we will be fighting voter suppression legislation wherever it’s introduced. We’re engaged in in a number of states like Maine [where Republicans had just reintroduced a voter ID bill despite voters’ rejection of a similar measure last November], but the really important states like Virginia and Pennsylvania are also in play right now.”

“Our biggest battle to stop suppression with voter ID bills is in two places. One is where bills have already passed: Texas, South Carolina and so forth,” he said. “The other part of the strategy is to fight the legislative battles in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, where bills are pending, and in North Carolina, where the legislature has threatened to override the governor’s veto of a voter ID bill.”

“We’ll engage in very aggressive voter registration and identification drives designed to further expand the electorate,” Jealous said. “We’ll make sure that those who need voter IDs get them.”

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Other strategies are underway. In February, Jealous said the NAACP would mail a voter registration form “to every black kid in the nation who’s turned 18 since November 2010 or who will be 18 by November 2012.” He estimated that this carpet-bomb approach could reach as many as 1.2 million younger African American voters.

In another bid to reach people where they also live — on the phone — The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, National Association of Latino Appointed and Elected Officials Education Fund, New Organizing Institute Education Fund, Rock the Vote and the Verified Voting Foundation last month collaborated on a new smartphone app to empower voters.

"The Election Protection smartphone app is a dynamic tool that will educate voters on their rights and empower them to take action so they can vote," said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, on a conference call with the other organizations, as reported by The Huffington Post.

The tool lets voters confirm their registration status, find polling places, complete voter registration forms, and reach out and touch election officials.

By all indications, the world on the smartphone is a great place to be if you want to reach minority voters. A March 1 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that “African-Americans and Latinos have overall adoption rates that are comparable to the national average for all Americans (smartphone penetration is 49% in each case, just higher than the national average of 46%).”

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HOPING TO reach voters online, the Obama campaign spent $31 million on digital ads through June, almost four times the $8.1 million that the Romney campaign spent on digital ads in the same time period, Kate Kaye reported Aug. 17 at ClickZ Politics.

The Obama campaign spent nearly $4.5 million on digital advertising and text messages in June, according to ClickZ’s analysis of Federal Election Commission filings. Romney's campaign spent about $500,000 on digital ads.

Apparently, this was no one-time anomaly; Kaye reported that “the disparity has been present throughout the election season.”

“The volume of Obama's digital and social media efforts, coupled with the campaign's big digital ad spending lead, show the Democrats are simply doing more digital marketing,” Kaye reported.

A lot can happen in a week or so. For Americans rightly concerned about the gathering tolerance for contraction of voting rights, for anyone anticipating the rollback of limits to those rights, the events of recent days are hopefully a preview of what’s next.

Image credits: Jealous: Rainier Ehrhardt/Reuters. Lawyers’ Committee logo: © 2011 The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Smartphone ownership demographic chart excerpt, Pew Internet logo: © 2012 Pew Internet & American Life Project.

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