Volunteers have been flooding into offices set up by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, some even traveling from out of state. Their motivation? They want to combat a new law rammed through the state Legislature by Republicans that asks all voters to show government-issued ID at the polls.
“It’s really lit a fire under a lot of people,” said Mark Nicastre, communications director for the state Democratic Party. “We’ve been very lucky to get probably three times the number of volunteers that we otherwise would have seen, and somewhere around six times the number of contributions.”
Republicans say new state laws that shorten early-voting periods, make it harder for third-party groups to register voters, or require voters to show photo ID at the polls are nothing more than reasonable precautions against voter fraud. But to Democrats, the laws are GOP attempts to make it more difficult for young people, minorities, and the elderly to cast their ballot—or, in other words, attempts to suppress the vote and sway the election.
In key states like Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, new election laws pose a logistical challenge for Democrats but also offer political payoff: galvanized activists and a feeling that Republicans have unfairly targeted certain communities.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats and civil-rights groups have been contacting voters that may lack identification and driving citizens to government offices that issue the approved identification. “I think it’s actually going to drive up voter participation because of the legwork the Obama campaign, state organized labor, church groups, the NAACP and the state party—what we’re all doing,” said Jason Henry, campaign manager for state Senate candidate Kimberly Villella.
The ID law may not even survive to November. It’s been tied up in litigation for months, and on Tuesday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court returned the case to a lower court for additional review. The Justice Department, the Obama for America campaign, and groups like the League of Women Voters have brought legal action against GOP-backed laws in other critical states, such as Florida, Ohio, and Texas, where they’ve managed to block or remove some of the provisions deemed most onerous.
Democratic anger is fueled less by the legal maneuvering than by an overarching sense that voting rights are under attack. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil-rights hero who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., connected the new GOP-backed laws to the Jim Crow era in an emotional speech at the recent Democratic convention.
“It is unbelievable that there are Republican officials still trying to stop some people from voting,” Lewis said. “The Republican leader in the Pennsylvania House even bragged that his state's new voter-ID law is ‘gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state.’ That's not right.”
“I've lived this before. Too many people struggled, suffered, and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote,” Lewis said. His speech brought the delegates to their feet.
Civil-rights groups have also raised the alarm over anti-voter-fraud organizations like True the Vote, a group that’s expected to dispatch election monitors to polling places this fall. The specter of poll watchers challenging African-American and Latino voters likewise brings back painful memories.
Conservatives say they are baffled that Democrats have gotten so riled up over a thing like photo I.D. “I really don’t understand it. It defies reality,” said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies. Indiana and Georgia had strict photo-ID laws in place in 2008 and yet saw record Democratic turnout, he pointed out.
But others forces were at work in those states at the time, including a surge of enthusiasm for Barack Obama, said Professor Daniel Tokaji of Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.“We’re still figuring this out, and it will probably take social scientists years to do it because there are so many variables that affect turnout,” he said.
One thing’s for sure, experts say: voter fraud is more likely to occur via absentee ballot, but the new GOP-backed laws focus overwhelmingly on tightening rules at polling places. “A lot of Republicans vote by mail and absentee ballot. This isn’t really about fraud, this is about making it more difficult for some groups of people to vote,” Tokaji said. In-person voter fraud is incredibly rare, he said.
In Florida, Democrats face perhaps their greatest logistical challenge: a drop in voter registration caused in part by a provision in the new state election law that made it harder for third-party groups to register voters. The provision was removed by a federal judge in May, but groups are struggling to make up for lost time. The state’s complicated new law, and the litigation over it, has also spread misinformation and confusion, said Daniel A. Smith, political-science professor at the University of Florida.
But Democrats nationwide have a consolation: People are more likely to vote when they think their vote matters. For a party that needs to close an enthusiasm gap heading into November, the battle over voting laws helps remind less likely voters why participation matters.
The controversy helps organizers import a compelling message, said Clarissa Martínez de Castro, director of Immigration and National Campaigns at the National Council of La Raza. “If their vote wasn’t that important, there wouldn’t be so many efforts to try to make it hard—if not impossible—for them to cast it,” she said.