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Civil Rights Advocates Meet in L.A. to Discuss Voter Suppression Laws

Posted: Jan 27, 2012

LOS ANGELES -- Earlier this week, at a press briefing co-hosted by New America Media (NAM) and Common Cause, civil rights lawyers and advocates representing California’s largest ethnic communities spoke of the need to work together to ensure that 2012 elections are open and accessible, in light of a rash of state laws that they say are being deliberately designed to suppress the vote of ethnic minorities and the poor.

Speakers at the briefing included legal experts from the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund (MALDEF), Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Common Cause.

According to research conducted by the NAACP, fourteen states have now passed measures “designed to restrict or limit the ballot access of voters of color,” and more states are looking to follow suit. In addition, civil rights organizations say the states with the highest minority voter turnouts during the 2008 national election are now the very ones pushing for more restrictive voting laws.

Legal experts at the press briefing say the measures in question are impeding voter registration efforts, including third-party registration drives, and are making it harder for eligible voters to cast absentee ballots or arrange for early voting. Many of the laws, they say, also create additional hurdles for people with felony convictions.

As a result, “poor people and people of color will be pushed aside in the voting process,” said Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause, a non-profit organization that lobbies to make government at all levels more honest.

The imposition of stricter identification requirements at polling places is an important component of many of the new and proposed voting laws, and has become a major concern for civil rights advocates who say the harsher rules impact some communities more than others.

According to Myrna Perez of NYU’s Brennan Center, current voter ID laws require types of identification that as many as 11 percent of Americans simply don’t have. Perez cited an example from Texas, where state voter law says it’s okay to use a gun permit to vote, but not a student ID.

A “Map of Shame,” unveiled during the briefing by the Lawyers’ Committee, showed that roughly half the country’s state legislatures are now attempting to pass laws that would require voters to produce a photo ID at their polling place.

“I’ve been a member of Congress six times, but [my] identification will not be valid for me to vote in some states,” said Edgar.

When asked if the new voter identification laws represent a concerted effort by conservatives to intimidate and discourage minority voters to go to the polls, Edgar answered with a blunt “yes.”

Tougher voting requirements have the potential to impact the 2012 election on a scale never before witnessed, according to Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyer’s Committee. In 2008, she noted, 20 million people who voted lacked a government-issued ID. In 2012, that number will jump to 25 million. The idea of so many people possibly being denied their right to participate in elections strikes Arnwine as “un-American and downright despicable.”

Those in favor of such measures have argued that the stricter laws are needed to ensure the integrity of the voting process, an argument that didn’t hold much sway among the legal experts assembled at the briefing.

“Democracy can only survive if everyone who is eligible has access to voting,” said Stewart Kwoh of APALC.

The 2012 national elections will be held on Tuesday, November 6, 2012, and along with the presidential race, 33 senate seats and numerous congressional and gubernatorial contests will be decided.

The stakes are high for each of the major political parties, and both are aware that minority votes could make the difference between win and lose.

Thomas A. Saenz, president of MALDEF, said the voter laws are bound to have a negative impact on the immigrant community, since many legally registered voters will feel intimidated and discouraged to go to the polls.

“The presence of uniformed guards, or sudden changes [at] precinct voting places in immigrant communities, could have an impact on the election results,’’ said Saenz.

Furthermore, restrictions on early voting appear to clearly target Latino and African American voters, according to Arnwine. New voter guidelines in Florida, for example, disallow eligible voters from casting their ballot on the Sunday before elections. Yet in 2008, 30 percent of all African Americans in Florida voted on the Sunday before the official “election day,” and 20 percent of all Latinos in Florida did the same.

“The objective is to get the message out that in this coming election, minorities are the most vulnerable and [because of that] they need to go to the polls,’’ said Julian Do of New America Media.

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