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Voting rights battles emerge in the South

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Raymond Rutherford has voted for decades. But this year, he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to cast a ballot.

The Sumter, S.C., resident, 59, has never had a government-issued photo ID because a midwife’s error listed him as Ramon Croskey on his birth certificate. It’s wrong on his social security card, too.

Rutherford has tried to find the time and money to correct his birth certificate as he waits to see if the photo voter ID law is upheld by a three-judge U.S. District Court panel, scheduled to convene in Washington, D.C., on September 24.

In June, South Carolina officials indicated in federal court filings that they will quickly implement the law before the November election if it is upheld. Voters without photo ID by November would be able to sign an affidavit explaining why they could not get an ID in time.

South Carolina’s photo voter ID law is similar to a series of restrictive election measures passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures in states of the former Confederacy, including Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia. North Carolina’s General Assembly failed to override Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of a photo voter ID bill.

Thirty-seven states have considered photo voter ID laws since 2010. In November, five states — Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania — will vote under strict new photo voter ID laws. A judge could soon decide whether the Pennsylvania law violates the state constitution as voting rights advocates claim.

Supporters argue the laws are important protections against in-person voter impersonation fraud, but civil rights organizations and election historians see evidence of a more sinister legacy. Obtaining certificates of birth, marriage and divorce needed to get a proper photo ID can be an obstacle for otherwise eligible and longtime voters like Rutherford.     “Today, there are more laws restricting access to polls since those that were against the initial passage of the Voting Rights Act,” said J. Morgan Kousser, professor of history and social science at the California Institute of Technology and author of two books on race and voting rights in the South.

The Voting Rights Act requires local governments with a history of voting rights discrimination to get U.S. Department of Justice approval for changes to their election laws. The federal law faces a sustained legal challenge. Voting-rights supporters call those challenges an uncomfortable reminder of the poll taxes and literacy tests that prompted the law in the days of Jim Crow.

States such as Georgia and Indiana point to increased turnouts across all demographic categories in the 2008 election compared to elections immediately before the states passed photo voter ID laws.

Kousser said such comparisons are moot because of the unprecedented enthusiasm that Barack Obama generated among young and minority voters. A July 2012 National Urban League study showed that black voters tipped the election for Obama in North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia and Florida.

“People died for the right to vote — friends of mine, colleagues of mine,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said in a May 9 House floor speech on an amendment to cut federal spending for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The amendment was withdrawn.

Lewis was a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was beaten severely on March 7, 1965, called Bloody Sunday for the attack by Alabama state troopers on about 600 voting rights marchers after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the way to Montgomery. The attack on the nonviolent protesters was so brutal that historians credit the day with swaying votes in favor of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The fight today is in federal court. The state of Texas and the Department of Justice clashed over that state’s photo voter ID law in U.S. District Court and it could go to the Supreme Court. In another case, an Alabama county attorney said he would take his legal challenge of the Voting Rights Act to the highest court possible.

A July report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, a public policy group that opposes many of the voting rule changes nationally, estimated that more than 10 million eligible voters nationwide live more than 10 miles from a state center that issues IDs.

Seven of the 10 states with photo voter ID laws are among the lowest-ranked states for public transportation funding. ID centers in many Southern states have limited or reduced hours in rural counties with high concentrations of minority residents.

“I reckon it’s like back during the days when they were slaves and couldn’t do nothing unless their masters signed for it,” Rutherford said. “They didn’t have proof [of] what their name was, they took whatever name their masters gave them. It seems to me they’re trying to send us years back where they can control who we vote for.”

South Carolina’s 2011 photo voter ID law became the first election law to be blocked in nearly 20 years. The Texas law also was blocked by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department. Hans von Spakovsky, the former Bush Justice Department lawyer who approved Georgia’s law, has become a leading advocate for photo voter ID laws.

Sid Bedingfield, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina, said the South’s changing demographics tell a different story.

“There is certainly something to be gained from those in power now, especially in states with Republican legislatures, in trying to limit turnout from certain demographic groups,” Bedingfield said.

Most of the states in the South have been sure Republican bets in presidential races since President Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ in the 1972 election. State and local races have been more mixed. The 2010 election placed North Carolina and Alabama legislatures under Republican control for the first time since the Reconstruction. Political party caucus shifts moved Louisiana’s House of Representatives to Republican control.

Bedingfield said photo voter ID laws are an attempt to solidify that power shift for years to come in view of an increase in black and Hispanic voters who traditionally vote for the Democratic Party.

“In the long-term, it’s a dead-end strategy that will only cement Democratic Party support among these new groups and create a winning coalition,” Bedingfield said.

Minority voters in the South face additional hurdles this election year.

An extensive purge of suspected ineligible voters that disproportionately targeted minorities in Florida was halted by the Justice Department in June, and a nonpartisan investigator will be appointed to determine why thousands of voters were removed from voting rolls in Tennessee earlier this year.

Florida cut its early voting hours almost in half to save money, state officials said. The state also eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day in November, a day that had become known as “Souls to the Polls” for the large number of black voters who went straight from church services to vote.

In North Carolina, the Republican-controlled General Assembly used the 2010 congressional and state legislative redistricting process to create controversial minority-majority districts that concentrate black voting power in a reduced number of legislative seats.

“They stacked and packed and bleached black voters out of districts for strictly partisan reasons,” said the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Courts have intervened 24 times in the last 30 years to alter North Carolina redistricting plans, and new lines this year divided hundreds of voting precincts into different districts. This means that neighbors voting in the same precinct may have different people running on their ballots for state and federal races. In some precincts, there were 30 or more different ballots offered during the May 8 primary.

“One precinct in Wake County has more than 17 different kinds of ballots,” said Carol Hazard, a precinct judge in Orange County, N.C., which includes Chapel Hill.

Brenda Williams, a physician and civil rights activist in Sumter, S.C., has spent thousands of dollars helping more than 100 local voters prepare for the photo ID law.

For the majority of voters who do not have ID, applying means they must pay for required personal documents.

Williams has been registering voters with her husband, Joe, for the 30 years she has owned the Excelsior Medical Clinic. Many elderly, rural voters in and around Sumter do not have a photo ID, Williams said. The majority of these voters were born at a time when hospitals refused black patients and babies who were delivered at home, and their births were not recorded accurately.

“I know scores of people who have never had government-issued photo identification,” Williams said. “They’re not criminals, never broken any laws, never been incarcerated. They don’t have photo ID because of rules made years, decades ago.”

Rutherford said he has let checks go uncashed because he didn’t have a photo ID. But with Williams’ help, the Walmart store employee isn’t waiting for courts and legislatures to agree on the legality of photo voter IDs.

“As a citizen, I think everyone should vote,” Rutherford said. “If you don’t get out there and vote, who’s going to talk for you? We can’t talk for ourselves because nobody is going to listen, so we have to put someone there to help us.”

“Who Can Vote?” was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.