Voting Rights Battles Re-emerge in the South

Danita Agee, 53, secures a banner at a voter registration drive she helped organize in Pratt City, Ala. (Photo by Khara Persad/News21.)

By Nick Andersen, Kassondra Cloos and Caitlin O’Donnell
News21

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.

About This Project

“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.

Review the complete Voting Rights in America project.

Related

Read other stories in the “Who Can Vote?” series.

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., in late September.

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 new strict photo voter ID laws.

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.

An Alabama resident fills out a voter registration form outside a deli in Pratt City, Ala. The deli is owned by Marie Thomas, and operated by her daughters Debbie and Danita Agee, who organized the registration drive. (Photo by Khara Persad/News21.)

The fight today is in federal court. The state of Texas and the Department of Justice clashed over that state’s photo voter ID 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 opposed 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 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 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.”

The tide of Southern election changes began in Georgia in 2005. Former state Rep. Sue Burmeister, a Republican, introduced a photo voter ID bill that quickly became the target of Democratic attacks and lawsuits.

“It was never my intent to try to make it harder for people to vote,” Burmeister said in an interview. She had heard stories of fraud in the state from members of both political parties, she said.

“I just grew up believing that it was very important that all people voted,” she said. “Yet, I didn’t want people voting two or three times to take away the votes.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the bill into law in January 2006. Georgia, which falls under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, adopted changes to the law intended to avoid getting blocked by the Justice Department. Free voter identification cards and an expansive voter education program were among the changes Georgia lawmakers used to win the approval called preclearance. The state increased election education funds from $50,000 to $500,000 in 2008, when the law first took effect, according to the secretary of state’s budget.

The Georgia law was cleared by President George W. Bush’s Justice Department.

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 Justice Department lawyer who approved Georgia’s law, has become a leading advocate for photo voter ID laws.

“These are laws to protect voters,” said Matt Carrothers, media relations director for the Georgia secretary of state. And voters largely agree. A March 2012 Elon University poll of 534 people showed that nearly 75 percent of North Carolina residents supported the state’s photo voter ID bill.

North Carolina Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory has campaigned on photo voter ID. He pledged to enact the failed legislation as a part of his administration.

“The polling is so strong on that issue that it’s easy to build some support when you note that in a long list of issues,” said John Dinan, a political scientist at Wake Forest University. “If you’re in support of voting rights and upset that your party has blocked it, you might look at McCrory.”

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 Reconstruction. Political party caucus shifts moved Louisiana’s House of Representatives to Republican control.

Danita Agee, 53, isn’t shy about which candidate she supports in the November election. AGEE greets drivers during a voter registration drive outside her grandmother’s deli in Pratt City, Ala., just north of Birmingham. (Photo by Khara Persad/News21.)

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.

Republicans are painting themselves as anti-minority through photo ID laws and demands for citizenship proof to vote, Bedingfield said. That will push even more minorities into the Democratic Party.

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, what 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. 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.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp and his office have worked to show opponents that targeted demographic suppression is more talk than reality. According to state records, the 2008 election saw Hispanic turnout increase by 140 percent and black voter turnout up 42 percent over 2004.

“These claims that our law is ‘akin to Jim Crow,’ that there is not voter fraud — these are disgustingly racist claims,” said Carrothers, Kemp’s spokesman.

Kemp has promoted the bill to other Southern states. Carrothers is in regular contact with the secretary of state’s office in Tennessee, he said, where a similar photo voter ID law took effect in January.

Tennessee, which is not subject to Section 5 preclearance, has followed a different path to photo voter ID.

Tennessee state Rep. JoAnne Favors already has heard from several voters who don’t have photo ID. The two-term Chattanooga Democrat, who is black, strongly opposed the bill, which could prevent residents — including Favors’ elderly mother — from voting because they lack a birth certificate or government-issued photo ID.

“Most of the people who began to call me when the law was first enacted were elderly white women,” Favors said. “I think that might cause concern for some of the people who did support that bill. They might not realize what they’ve done.”

A report from the Durham, N.C.-based Institute for Southern Studies — a nonprofit research group for activists, scholars and policy makers — estimates that more than 380,000 Tennessee residents lack the photo ID required in the law. Many of them are elderly voters who have opted for an older, separate state law allowing residents older than 60 to get driver’s licenses without photos.

Legislators passed that law out of concern for “frail” elderly voters unable to easily renew their driver’s licenses. But the photo voter ID law, which permitted “no questions asked” absentee ballots for voters aged 65 and older, left Tennessee voters between 60 and 65 disadvantaged. The “no question” absentee age was lowered to 60 after the state’s March 6 presidential primary.

“What I’m really concerned about are those folks that don’t ask or don’t call and you don’t know where they are,” said Madeleine C. Taylor, executive director of the NAACP in Memphis. “They just say, ‘Well, hey, I’m not going to all the trouble. I’m not going to vote.’”

Unless Favors and other Democratic activists in Tennessee can prove that voters are facing insurmountable difficulties at the ballot box in November, the state’s law will go unchallenged. This frustrates lawyers such as George Barrett of Nashville. He has worked with the American Civil Liberties Union on voting rights cases. Identifying plaintiffs has been nearly impossible, he said.

“It’s more difficult if you’re not under the Voting Rights Act,” Barrett said. “You’ve almost got a prima facie case if you’re under the Voting Rights Act.”

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee ACLU, said this difficulty stems from the photo ID law’s “chilling effect.” Many people shy away from voting or trying to get an ID because they presume they do not have the correct documents.

“Just because we can’t present the individual to you, doesn’t mean there isn’t a pretty serious problem taking place,” Weinberg said.

Opponents of photo ID warn of potentially hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised voters. Supporters allege there’s a great potential for voter impersonation.

Both Carrothers and Kemp in Georgia said that they were surprised to see so few free photo voter ID card applications — 26,506 as of February.

“When the bill passed, opponents said there were hundreds of thousands of citizens who would be unable to vote,” Carrothers said. “Opponents of photo ID keep changing the way they oppose the law, and now they know they can’t oppose the law in Georgia by claiming ‘disenfranchisement.’”

Those legal and public challenges to voter ID laws might be less frequent very soon if lawsuits against the Voting Rights Act in Alabama and Texas go to the Supreme Court.

Frank Ellis Jr., attorney for Shelby County, outside of Birmingham, Ala., has said that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is outdated and unconstitutional. Although local demographics in many of the municipalities named in the Voting Rights Act have changed in the nearly 50 years since the law passed, few adjustments have been made to Section 5 preclearance.

“To require governments to spend tens of millions of dollars — local governments that need that money for other purposes, for education, for police protection, for facilities and infrastructure — it’s archaic and out of date,” Ellis said.

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 photo ID, applying means they must pay for required personal documents.

Donna Dubose, 63, was delivered at home by a midwife who recorded her name as Baby Girl Kennedy. She attended college for three years, aided by federal grants. Although financial strains prevented her from graduating, Dubose was trained as a nurse’s aide and retired about a decade ago.

“My life wasn’t a pleasant road,” Dubose said. “But in my mind all I wanted to do was take care of people.”

With the help of Williams and attorney Murrell Smith, a Republican state representative who voted in favor of photo voter ID, Dubose obtained a corrected birth certificate and a government-issued photo ID.

Williams is now helping Dubose’s husband, James, who lost his personal documents when his childhood home burned. James Dubose, a former railroad worker who is illiterate, has voted for the majority of his life and said he has never been asked to show a photo ID at the polls.

“It makes me really frustrated to not be able to vote all of a sudden,” James Dubose, 75, said.

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 access to photo ID, Williams said. The majority of these voters were born at a time when hospitals refused black patients and babies 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.”

Williams carries an NAACP membership card issued for $2 to her father, Frederick Chapman, in 1961. A message printed on the back, part of the association’s mission, is particularly close to her heart: “To secure a free ballot for every qualified American citizen.”

Half a century later, Williams said she is still willing to fight for that right.

“It’s so frustrating trying to help poor people, people who are indigent, people who have low self-esteem, people who have a low sense of self-worth,” she said. “The majority of our society and nation couldn’t care less about poor folk.”

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

“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.”

This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

*