WASHINGTON (CNN) — For LaVon Bracy, the pain of racial discrimination, of fighting for her rights as a U.S. citizen, still aches every time she thinks about Florida’s new voter identification law.
“When I think I had ancestors that died for this right. I owe it to them … to do what I’m doing,” said Bracy, who years ago helped desegregate her Florida high school and today is fighting to change voting restrictions she feels are designed to keep people like her away from the polls.
Parts of the Florida law — which required a photo ID to vote, restricted voter registration techniques and limited early voting — have been curtailed by federal courts.
Still, it is one of more than two dozen laws across the country approved in at least 15 states since 2011 to deal with concerns around voter fraud and election irregularities. But courts and the Justice Department have reversed or weakened several of those regulations in a flurry of recent litigation.
Anita MonCrief, however, could not disagree more strongly with Bracy.
MonCrief, who is also African American, told women gathered at the Woman’s Up Pavilion at the Republican National Convention in August that she resents when other blacks suggest that efforts to crack down on voter fraud are racially motivated.
“This is not the 60’s and blacks are not your victims,” MonCrief tweeted during the week of the convention. “Do you know any blacks that have been disenfranchised by having poll watchers in place? Neither do I.”
CNN senior correspondent Joe Johns will explore the impact of tough new voter laws in an hour-long documentary set to air on Sunday. It focuses on new legislative voting changes in Florida and how those changes may affect the outcome of the 2012 presidential election.
Political tactic or vital for democracy?
This year’s fight has been especially intense in the battleground states of Florida and Pennsylvania, where there have been high-profile fights over new voter identification laws, and Ohio, where the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Republican White House challenger Mitt Romney were locked in a showdown over early voting.
Some see the voter laws as a political weapon designed to discourage turnout during an election where every vote may matter. Others, however, feel that the laws are a simple and painless way to assure the integrity of the voting process.
“We’ve seen a great deal of litigation in the last two election cycles,” said Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor. “This is shaping up to be an extremely close presidential election in which a lot of these seemingly little things could add up and make a difference in these swing states in Florida or Ohio or Pennsylvania.”
But are the slew of new laws a solution in search of a problem?
Johns’ investigation reveals there were 55 cases of voter fraud referred for prosecution by the Florida Secretary of State out of 11.6 million registered voters over five years, the latest period for which data is available.
Evidence of voter fraud?
“It’s true that there is some voter fraud in this country … but there is no credible evidence that there is any systematic in-person voter fraud. It’s not a serious problem,” Richard Hasen a political science and law professor at the University of California-Irvine told CNN.
There is recent evidence, however, that some voting fraud does exist.
Last month the Republican National Committee announced it cut ties with a consulting firm that Florida election officials say may have filed falsified voter registration paperwork. The story was first reported by NBC News.
Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher told CNN that her office has called into question as many as 106 voter registration applications that were turned in by someone connected to Strategic Allied Consulting. Fred Petti, an attorney for the firm, said the employee involved in the questionable signatures was “fired immediately.”
Republicans in Florida and in the battlegrounds of Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia have paid Strategic Allied Consulting at least $3 million in recent months for voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, although the issues appear to be limited to Florida.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal think tank at the New York University School of Law that has criticized the increase in what it sees as prohibitive voting laws, there have been 25 laws and two executive actions passed in 19 states since the beginning of 2011 which “could make it harder to vote.”
However, “nearly a dozen courts overturned or weakened restrictive measures, and the Department of Justice blocked others,” the group wrote on its web site.
Recent court rulings
In August, a federal appeals court in Washington struck down the Texas voter ID law requiring photos for voters at the polls, calling it racially discriminatory. Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed the voter ID measure into law last year, but it had yet not gone into effect because the federal Voting Rights Act requires changes in Texas voting laws to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department.
A Pennsylvania judge ruled last week that state officials cannot enforce a new voter identification law in next month’s presidential election. Prior to the new law, first-time voters in Pennsylvania were allowed to present documents like bank statements and utility bills in lieu of photo identification. Under the new law, all voters would have to present a valid photo ID — one that is sanctioned by the state — before they cast their ballots.
To get a photo ID, residents must have a valid Social Security card; an official birth certificate or U.S. citizenship documents; and two proofs of residency, such as a utility bill or tax records.
That same week, a federal appeals court sided with the Obama campaign and Democrats in their lawsuit against Ohio over a restriction the state had placed on early voting.
Obama’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Ohio Democratic Party filed suit in July over the restriction, which would have closed early in-person voting at the end of the day on the Friday before the election for all voters except those covered by a federal voting law. The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act required the state to maintain early voting for members of the military, their family members, and U.S. citizens living outside the country.
However, a federal court panel in Washington on Wednesday ruled in favor of South Carolina’s voter photo ID law, but said it cannot go into effect until next year because there’s too little time to implement it for this November’s election.
The three-judge panel said South Carolina’s law does not discriminate against racial minorities as the Justice Department and other opponents had argued.
Clarity and confusion
The flurry of laws and subsequent legal decisions could not only confuse voters but also poll workers who may be unclear on the changes, said Myrna Pérez, a senior counsel at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice. As a result, she said, the very rulings meant to prevent disenfranchisement could create a climate in which poll workers unwittingly do exactly that.
“When you have laws changing so close to the election there’s going to be confusion and misunderstanding of applications,” Perez said. “It doesn’t help with the fact that election officials are at the busiest time of their year. As a country, our election offices are under-resourced and not given the kinds of support they need and our poll workers … frequently don’t receive the kind of training they need.
“It’s a very real possibility that poll workers are going to be confused about the state of certain laws and that confusion could make it more difficult for eligible Americans to participate,” she added.
An ‘opportunity for local elections to be … stolen’
Lawmakers who have crafted some of the nation’s toughest voter identification laws reject the notion that they are disenfranchising minorities.
Florida state representative Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), chief sponsor of that state’s voter identification law legislation, says he is not suppressing the votes of African Americans and Latinos. He disagrees that the intent of the new law is anything more than his effort to prevent voter fraud.
“One of the things, I think, that was really going wrong was the opportunity for local elections to be displaced or stolen, by just people coming in and moving their address,” Baxley says in the CNN documentary.
But some still see the matter as a racial issue.
Attorney General Eric Holder and first lady Michelle Obama weighed in last month on voting rights at the Congressional Black Caucus Gala. Holder said voting rights are more than a partisan issue, while Obama recalled the pains many withstood in the civil rights struggle. The right to cast a ballot, she said, is significant, important, and should be protected.
Though Obama did not specifically address voting laws, she stressed the importance of registering people to vote, calling it “the movement of our era.”
“We cannot let anyone discourage us from casting our ballots,” Obama said. “We cannot let anyone make us feel unwelcome in the voting booth. It is up to us to make sure that in every election, every voice is heard and every vote is counted.”
Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, a civil rights icon who was a close confidant to Dr. Martin Luther King and was beaten over his efforts to help end racial segregation and ensure voting rights for blacks, was more blunt.
“I’m really shocked. For me it is unreal. It is unbelievable,” Lewis told CNN last month. “It may not be the literacy test or counting jelly beans in a jar. People aren’t being beaten or chased by police dogs, but it takes us back to another day and another period and as Americans we should not want to even dream about the past.”