By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — When the Supreme Court threw out part of the Voting Rights Act last year, many predicted it would bolster Republican efforts to tighten voting procedures before this fall’s election, particularly in the South.
Already, more Americans than ever will face new voting restrictions in November as 15 states — some with the closest midterm races in the country — begin implementing laws banning same-day registration, requiring photo IDs or shortening the period for early voting.
Less anticipated, however, was the robust and sometimes creative backlash that has followed from Democrats and their allies, who are launching a spirited counteroffensive that strategists say could end up benefiting party turnout on Election Day.
In Wisconsin, a photo ID law signed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker led the mayor of liberal Madison to urge voting this November as an “act of defiance.” He wants city vans to take seniors to have their photos taken in time to vote.
North Carolina’s new voting laws, approved last year by the first Republican-led state Legislature since Reconstruction, spurred the NAACP to stage large-scale voter registration rallies that may explain why new Democratic registrations in some key counties are growing faster than new Republican registrations.
And in Georgia, Democrats turned the court’s decision into an unexpected opportunity. After justices set aside the provision that required the state to obtain federal approval before changing voting rules, Democratic-led counties realized they had the authority to expand early voting in their districts.
So polls will be open around Atlanta for the first time on Sundays, a popular voting day for churchgoing African-Americans.
“The irony here was tremendous,” said Lee May, the 38-year-old interim chief executive of DeKalb County, a large Democratic and African-American jurisdiction that was the first to launch Sunday voting. “Of course I was not in support of the changes that took place in the Voting Rights Act, but I get a great sense of pleasure that, in this, we get to take advantage of those changes to benefit voters in the South.”
The rapid escalation of the ballot-box battles should come as no surprise in a decade that has seen a mostly partisan tug of war over election management.
After President Barack Obama’s first election, Republicans have advocated tighter voting rules as a way to keep election costs low and prevent fraud. But they also realize that Democratic voters, including minorities and low-income families, have been shown to take greater advantage of more expansive voting arrangements, including same-day registration and early voting periods.
That lesson was underscored in North Carolina in 2008, when Obama received fewer votes than Republican candidate Sen. John McCain on Election Day, but still won the state thanks to early-voting ballots.
This fall, a record number of GOP-backed restrictions are set to take effect, although court challenges could still delay some before Election Day. Several cases are expected to land at the Supreme Court.
The American Civil Liberties Union asked the Supreme Court to block Wisconsin’s voter ID law, while Republicans in North Carolina succeeded last week in having the justices clear the way for theirs, which would end same-day voter registration. Last week, the court authorized Ohio to enforce its law shortening the period for early voting.
But if Republicans hoped to reduce Democratic turnout in close races, the voting crackdown may be backfiring.
“There’s an active pushback going on of people wanting to say, ‘Like hell you’ll take my vote away,'” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, an advocacy organization that is registering voters in the state.
After Georgia’s DeKalb County decided last month to offer Sunday voting, several other counties in the Atlanta area followed.
The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., asked his congregation whether the church should participate in the upcoming Sunday voting.
“The response was overwhelming — we should do vanpools, carpools,” said Warnock, who is helping lead the New Georgia Project’s effort to register 120,000 minority voters for the fall election. “This is a new and historic move.”
Voting law experts say they have not seen such an effort to rein in voting access since Reconstruction.
In 2010, two states required photo IDs at polls. This fall, almost a dozen states will require them, even though studies show that 10 percent of eligible voters do not have government-issued photo identification cards, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.
Almost half the nation’s states have tougher laws than a decade ago, including Arkansas, Georgia, New Hampshire and North Carolina, where races could determine which party controls the Senate. In some of those states, and in Kansas and Wisconsin, governors are also in close contests.
In many states, the battle over voting rules has left election officials scrambling weeks before Nov. 4 to comply with the ever-shifting laws.
In Wisconsin, some absentee ballots had already been cast when a court ruled in mid-September that photo IDs would be required. Election clerks quickly mailed out notices asking absentee voters to include photocopies of their IDs with their ballots. Those who had already mailed in ballots were asked to send copies of their IDs.
As Democrats mobilize their supporters to confront the new rules, Republicans are crying foul.
Georgia’s Republican secretary of state’s office opened an investigation into the New Georgia Project, the voter-registration drive organized by a Democratic legislator, claiming that many of the group’s 85,000 new voter applications are fraudulent. The group, which is registering minority voters, countered that state has delayed adding the new voters to the rolls.
Exasperated Republican state Sen. Fran Millar complained that Democrats in DeKalb County were setting up Sunday polling stations in Democratic strongholds, such as the South DeKalb Mall, which he noted was “dominated by African American shoppers, and it is near several large African American mega-churches.” He called for similar access to polls in other parts of the county.
“Is it possible church buses will be used to transport people directly to the mall?” the senator fumed in an open letter to Georgians. “So much for being inclusive.”
Photo: Vox Efx via Flickr