A Black Cloud Over the Ballot Box

Americans who care about the right to vote are faced with an ugly reality as the 2012 elections come into view: no matter how many courts rule that voter identification laws will disenfranchise eligible citizens and no matter how many states U.S. Department of Justice analysts determine—using data supplied by the states themselves—that strict voter ID laws discriminate against people of color, voter identification laws will be in place in a number of states throughout the country in November.  Numerous articles written over the last few months have presented the incredibly sad stories of Americans, particularly the elderly, who, unable to obtain the necessary identification, won’t be able to cast a ballot.  We know from comparisons of voter registration lists and state Department of Motor Vehicle records that hundreds of thousands of citizens don’t have the ID needed to vote.

What does this mean? Quite simply, we must redouble our efforts to protect American voting rights. While we will continue to fight disenfranchising laws in the legislatures and the courts, we must also go to work at a grassroots level in communities, assisting citizens—even on a case-by-case basis—in obtaining proper voting ID if it is at all possible.  Local, state and national organizations must work together to try to provide the practical assistance and money it will take for Americans to overcome the hurdles legislators have thrown in their way to the ballot box.

As Demos, Common Cause, The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and the Fair Elections Legal Network reported in their recent publication, “Got ID?”, there are already groups doing pioneering work to this end. Looking in particular at activities under way in Tennessee and Wisconsin, the report details the efforts of a number of groups in reaching out to voters and develops a set of preliminary best practices gleaned from these efforts that can be used by other groups throughout the country.

The work of the League of Young Voters in Wisconsin is especially impressive. The group has innovatively sought out voters without ID through a text message campaign, advertising their election hotline number through radio ads and fliers, inviting people to text with questions about the election. The reply text guides the reader through a series of questions, and if the voter indicates they are in need of ID the text automatically converts into an email that goes to LYV staff for follow up.  The group has also been distributing a flyer door to door in communities of color that lists the requirements for obtaining a free ID from the DMV, along with a text number for people who need help. They also instruct people to bring a snack—“This might take a while,” the flyer reads.

We can also take note of the power that a little local leadership can have, looking at the likes of Tennessee State Representative JoAnn Favors. After her home state passed its voter ID law in June of last year, she organized a meeting of concerned groups and individuals to start working on how to help voters get the ID they would need.  Dozens showed up, named themselves the Tennessee Voters’ Assistance Coalition, and have continued to meet every two weeks to coordinate activities. The group remains a loose coalition of organizations including labor unions and churches that is helping people navigate the system, getting the word out through Facebook, items in the local free weekly newspaper, church bulletins, and radio programs, even providing free rides to the DMV in church busses and cars driven by individual volunteers.

The Tennessee groups have also had success in getting government involved in making it easier for people to get the ID needed to vote. Under Favors’ leadership, they convinced 20 motor vehicle facilities to open on the first Saturday of each month up until March, when the first election under the new law would be held, for the sole purpose of issuing free photo IDs. In March, the city of Jackson Transit Authority announced that it would provide free bus rides to Tennesseans who needed to get to the DMV to get their voter-mandated ID card. 

Similar local leadership has been demonstrated in Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee Board of Advisers passed a measure in the fall of 2011 that would provide 5,000 free birth certificates to Milwaukee County residents applying with the intent to obtain voter identification and who declare in writing they cannot afford the $20 fee.

Organizations large and small are doing extraordinary work to help mitigate the damage done by new state laws that restrict the right to vote. Recognizing that the usual methods weren’t going to be sufficient in the face of legislatively imposed challenges, they’ve come up with and are implementing innovative strategies to help individual Americans retain their voting rights.

Nonetheless, these strategies need to be expanded and replicated to reach voters in all the states that have passed laws that make voting more difficult. The work has just begun. National, state, and local organizations must continue to dialogue, collaborate and raise funds to help fellow Americans learn about the new rules, navigate the administrative maze, pay for certified birth certificates, and get to the DMV to make sure they can get an ID to vote for free. Given the numerous steps and countless possible delays that can take place throughout the process, these activities must take place throughout the nation—starting now.



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