Without President Obama's name on the ballot, Democrats and civil rights leaders increasingly view voting rights as a rallying cry that could boost minority participation in key midterm Senate races in 2014.
Facing a challenging election landscape in which African-American and Hispanic turnout typically dips, Democrats are seizing on Republican attempts to pass voter identification laws and the Supreme Court's ruling that Congress rewrite the landmark law protecting minority voting rights. Attorney General Eric Holder is suing the state of Texas to continue monitoring its electoral laws and districts. Civil rights leaders, who met with Holder and President Obama at the White House on Monday, are launching a massive voter registration drive next month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington.
And the lobbying offshoot of the Obama campaign, Organizing for Action, is alerting supporters about a new "voter suppression" bill in North Carolina, poised to be the latest Republican-led state to require voters to show photo identification.
Party strategists acknowledge there's as much of a political component to the activism in addition to the concerns over GOP-backed legislation.
"I think you'll see Democrats in state parties, in campaigns, in political action groups and in civil rights groups use every tool in their arsenal to fight for voting rights and extending the electorate in 2014," said Jeremy Bird, Obama's national field director in 2012, whose "Battleground Texas" project aims to boost the conservative state's minority voting rolls. "What you're seeing is a continued, systematic effort by Republicans to make it more difficult for people to vote."
Black turnout will be pivotal to the re-election of vulnerable Senate Democrats in the South, including Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, as well as to Democratic hopes of picking up an open Senate seat in Georgia. Those states could be decisive in determining whether the Democratic Party maintains control of Senate in 2014. The heated Virginia governor's race in November will serve as a test run for the party's ability to mobilize black voters without the first African-American president at the top of the ticket.
Republicans reject the notion that they're trying to suppress voter turnout, pointing to progress toward racial equality and questioning whether the Voting Rights Act has outlived its usefulness. They also frame efforts to monitor voter registration and require photo ID at the polls as necessary to prevent voter fraud. A recent McClatchy-Marist poll found 83 percent favor voters showing photo ID.
"I don't think there's any vulnerability for Republicans on this," said Republican strategist Rob Jesmer. "It's important to protect the sanctity of someone's vote." In response to Holder's lawsuit in Texas, Republican Sen. John Cornyn said in a written statement, "This decision has nothing to do with protecting voting rights and everything to do with advancing a partisan political agenda. Texans should not – and will not – stand for the continued bullying of our state by the Obama administration."
Before the 2012 election, civil rights groups and the Obama campaign redoubled efforts on voter education and registration, fearing that a slew of new voter ID laws would depress turnout by young people, minorities and the poor. Some of the voter restrictions were deferred, while others were struck down in court.
In Florida, which had cut down the number of early voting days, some voters waited as long as eight hours and stayed in line even after Obama was declared the winner. Outrage over the long lines, particularly in urban areas, led Republican Gov. Rick Scott to sign a law in May restoring early voting hours and expanding polling places.
Jotaka Eaddy, senior director of voting rights at the NAACP, said the backlash against voter ID laws nationwide was one reason turnout among black voters topped white turnout for the first time in 2012, 66.2 to 64.1 percent.
"It's important that we move our outrage into action, and I expect to see a similar impact on the 2013 and 2014 elections," Eaddy said. "A lot of people will go to the polls with this issue in the forefront of their minds, and if Congress fails to act there will be serious repercussions."
The same McClatchy-Marist poll that showed widespread support for voter ID laws also found that 53 percent of adults think voter discrimination still exists and should be addressed by Congress. There have been few signs of movement on the Voting Rights Act since both the House and Senate held hearings two weeks ago, but in speeches to two leading civil rights groups, Holder has made it clear that he will step in. The first African-American U.S. Attorney General announced the lawsuit against the state of Texas at the National Urban League conference in Philadelphia last week, vowing "this is the department's first action to protect voting rights following the (Supreme Court) decision, but it will not be our last."
In Georgia, where nearly one-third of the population is black, the Democratic Party sees one of its only opportunities to expand its narrow Senate majority. Democratic hopes are riding on Michelle Nunn, who has never held elected office but has a familiar surname as the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn. Among the Republican contenders to replace the retiring Saxby Chambliss are two conservative congressmen who have expressed skepticism about voter discrimination.
Before the Supreme Court ruling, Rep. Paul Broun touted an amendment to cut funding to enforce part of the Voting Rights Act. His action drew a sharp rebuke from Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a leading figure in the civil rights movement who called the amendment "shameful." Another Republican Senate candidate, Rep. Phil Gingrey, is sponsoring a bill that would allow states to limit enrollment in a federal voter registration program.
While Nunn isn't expected to put voting rights at the center of her fledgling campaign in a Republican-friendly state, she's more likely to raise the issue when campaigning in black communities. And she'll be reliant on African-American awareness of the issue as a motivational force to show up at the polls.
"Michelle has been vocal about her commitment to guaranteeing the continued protection of voters and the importance of the Voting Rights Act," said Nunn's deputy campaign manager, Zac Petkanas. "Congress has an obligation to reexamine how communities and states are currently engaging minority voters and to take appropriate action to ensure the hard fought right to vote is secure for all Americans."
Myrna Perez, deputy director at the Brennan Center for Justice, cautioned that while the Supreme Court ruling may mobilize some communities, it also appears to be encouraging Republican-led states to ramp up voting restrictions. The same day the Supreme Court gutted part of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans in Texas and Mississippi clamored to implement voter ID laws that were in legal limbo. North Carolina lawmakers passed a sweeping voter ID law that also would reduce early voting, eliminate same-day voter registration and end pre-registration for high school students. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is expected to sign the law, while closing arguments in the challenge to Pennsylvania's voter ID law are coming this week.
"Some folks are viewing the Supreme Court ruling as a green light to promote and instigate voter restrictions and to do so with a degree of impunity," said Myrna Perez, deputy director at the Brennan Center for Justice. "The best results and worst results are likely to happen at the same time. It might stop some people from voting while emboldening others to dig in and make sure they are able to participate."