The NAACP is calling the wave of Voter ID laws passed in 2011 a "coordinated and comprehensive assault" on the right to vote for people of color and the poor, singling out the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as the source of the outbreak. The organization is taking its case to the United Nations this week.
Rev. William Barber, President of the NAACP North Carolina State Conference, says "Jim Crow used blunt tools. James Crow, Esquire uses surgical tools, high paid consultants and lawyers to cut out the heart of black political power."
New Wave of Barriers to the Right to Vote
The 112-year-old civil rights organization released a report Monday highlighting how 25 voting access measures passed in 14 states threaten to disenfranchise millions of people, a disproportionate number of whom are men and women of color. Dozens more restrictions have been proposed and not yet adopted. The measures restrict voting rights in a variety of ways, for example by requiring voters show photo ID (which many African-Americans do not have) or imposing longer residency requirements for voting at a particular address (which could disproportionately affect African-Americans, who statistically move at a higher rate than others).
The group is also highlighting how states are selectively changing the rules for casting absentee ballots, which many African-Americans have used to vote, but not limiting military absentee voting. NAACP president Ben Jealous says Sunday voting has become almost "a right of the Black church. This is a huge day when people will push out their entire congregations to vote." In Florida, for example, 54 percent of black voters used absentee ballots to vote in the 2008 elections, and blacks made up 32 percent of the entire statewide turnout on the last Sunday before the election. Florida has since passed a law shortening its early voting period from 14 days to 8 days.
Proponents of Voter ID and other ballot restrictions assert the laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud. But fraud almost never happens. A person is less likely to commit fraud than get struck by lightning. Stephen Colbert called it "an enemy so small it could be hiding anywhere." Voter fraud is so exceedingly rare it is insignificant, but Voter ID legislation will have a statistically significant effect of depriving millions of Americans their right to vote, the report states.
ALEC Source of Outbreak
"The heart of the modern block the vote campaign is a wave of restrictive government-issued photo identification requirements," the NAACP report states. "In a coordinated effort, legislators in thirty-four states introduced bills imposing such requirements. Many of these bills were modeled on legislation," the report notes, approved by corporations and politicians through the corporate-funded "American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a conservative advocacy group whose founder explained: 'our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.'"
In the wake of the highest general election turnout in nearly 60 years in the 2008 presidential election (particularly among university students and African-Americans), ALEC directed its focus on "Voter ID." Shortly after the election of the nation's first black president, "Preventing Election Fraud" was the cover story on the Inside ALEC magazine, and ALEC corporations and politicians voted in 2009 for "model" Voter ID legislation. The 2010 census showed that communities of color -- and eligible voters within those communities -- were growing rapidly, at a faster pace than the white population. With new majorities of ALEC politicians in many state legislatures and ALEC alums as governor following the 2010 elections, restrictive voter bills modeled on the ALEC template were introduced in a majority of states across the country in 2011.
"Not surprisingly, the states with the highest voter turnout among people of color in the 2008 elections and population growth among voters of color," notes the NAACP report, "are the states pushing the most restrictive voting laws in the past year."
Disparate Impact, Even If Some Proponents Lack Discriminatory Intent
Requiring an ID at the polls may not be a burden for some populations, but the statistical reality is that many people of color do not have state-issued ID cards, and will be disproportionately impacted by the new Voter ID laws. Nationally, 25% of African Americans (over 6.2 million African-American voters) and 16% of Latinos (over 2.96 million Latino voters) do not possess state-issued photo IDs, according to the report. In states like Wisconsin, those numbers are much higher. According to a 2005 study (pdf), 55 percent of all African American males and 49 percent of African American women do not have state-issued ID cards, nor do 46 percent of Hispanic men and 59 percent of Hispanic women. Those numbers are even greater for younger African-Americans, with 78 percent of males and 66 percent of females between ages 18-24 not having an ID.
The NAACP's Rev. Barber says that traditional notions of racism need not factor into the analysis. "The interest is not [what's in] their heart, it's their policy," he said. "If they implement these policies, and they know who these policies are going to impact, it is disparate racial treatment."
ALEC Meetings Not Representative
Even though ALEC bills directly impact communities of color, it may be little surprise that African-Americans and Latinos are conspicuously absent at ALEC meetings. The 2011 ALEC meeting in New Orleans was overwhelmingly white, based on the observations of those attending. But the lack of representation is striking for an organization purportedly concerned with giving a voice to those affected by government action.
After the Center for Media and Democracy analyzed and made available over 800 previously-secret ALEC "model bills" in July, ALEC's National Chair, Louisiana Rep. Noble Ellington, spoke with NPR's Terry Gross about the organization. Gross asked Ellington, "Why give corporations such a big say in drafting legislation?" Ellington replied, "Well, partly because they're one of the ones who will be affected by it."
ALEC's then-spokesperson Raegan Weber echoed that sentiment in a July Los Angeles Times article, saying that "legislators should hear from those the government intends to regulate."
The NAACP and others have shown that ALEC's Voter ID legislation will disproportionately impact people of color, but experience suggests that representatives of affected populations were absent from the ALEC task forces or board meetings that approved the model Voter ID bill. And it is unknown whether ALEC's legislative and corporate members reached out to communities of color before deciding to vote in favor of the model bill.
NAACP Presents Evidence to U.N.
The NAACP, like other groups representing minority populations in countries around the world, have reached out to the United Nations (U.N.) at times when they believed domestic institutions were failing to protect their human rights. In 1947, W.E.B. DuBois filed a petition with the U.N. on behalf of the NAACP describing Jim Crow laws that denied the right to vote as well as other grievances related to racial discrimination.
This week, the NAACP will again take its concerns to the global stage, presenting evidence to the U.N. Commissioner on Human Rights about the harmful impact of the voter bills. NAACP president Ben Jealous says the organization will be asking the U.N. "to look at what is a coordinated campaign to disenfranchise persons of color." In March the NAACP will send legal experts to Geneva to seek the support of the U.N. human rights council.