By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)
WASHINGTON — With several key elections potentially hinging on razor-thin margins, Americans went to the polls Tuesday in 34 states with new voting laws that critics fear will adversely impact minority turnout and proponents say are needed to protect against voter fraud.
The new laws — ranging from photo identification requirements to restrictions on same-day registration — brought increased scrutiny Tuesday from the two major political parties, civic groups, voting rights advocates and the Justice Department, almost all deploying monitors and lawyers to polling stations to look out for voting problems.
“It’s the new normal since 2000,” said Richard Hasen, a law and politics professor at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Voting Wars: From 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown. “Some of this is legitimate fear, some of it is a way of getting the base wound up and (to) raise funds.”
From the moment polls opened — and in some cases before — reports of voting irregularities began. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s election protection program reported more than 12,000 calls to its hotline — the bulk of them from Florida, Georgia, Texas, New York and North Carolina.
Georgia and Texas have strict photo ID laws, meaning those who don’t have proper identification can vote via provisional ballots but must provide sufficient identification within days of casting those ballots, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Florida, voters without ID can cast provisional ballots and their signatures can be verified by election officials with signatures on record.
“Yes, there are people saying they’re not being allowed to vote,” Barbara Arnwine, the lawyers’ committee’s president and executive director, said without providing specific details.
“Unfortunately it’s coming from a number of states. We say it’s for two reasons: Some of them are states like Texas where, sadly, the voter ID law has been allowed to proceed. … The other thing that we’re seeing is that states just didn’t do their jobs of getting to voters the correct information about voter registration status and polling places.”
In Georgia, where Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn are locked in a tight Senate race, the secretary of state reported problems with a website that provides poll locations for voters.
The technical glitch further angered civil rights leaders and voting rights advocates who have alleged that 40,000 voter registration applications gathered by the New Georgia Project are missing or unprocessed. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said there are no missing applications.
In Connecticut, incumbent Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy’s campaign filed a complain in Hartford Superior Court demanding that voting hours be extended Tuesday because of delays and other problems at Hartford polling sites. Photo ID is requested but not required to vote in Connecticut.
President Barack Obama called “The Colin McEnroe Show” on Hartford’s WNPR on Tuesday and told listeners not to let problems at the polls discourage them from voting.
“If people were planning to vote before going to work, and they weren’t able to do it, that’s frustrating,” Obama said. “I want to encourage everyone who is listening not to be deterred by what was obviously an inconvenience.”
Republicans railed against Malloy’s extension request.
“It’s always the Democrats. It’s always the cities,” state Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola told NBC Connecticut. “This is right out of the Democratic playbook on how to conduct elections.”
In Maryland, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is in an unexpectedly close race against Republican Larry Hogan, True the Vote, a conservative-leaning election watchdog group, said Tuesday that issues with a malfunctioning voting machine in Baltimore County that allegedly switched votes in multiple contests during early voting last month remain unresolved.
The group also reported that Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott’s name was missing on at least one voting machine in a San Antonio precinct.
Midterm elections generally draw fewer voters than presidential-year contests. Still, more than 19.6 million have voted ahead of the official Election Day, according to the United States Elections Project, which compiles voting data.
In 2010, 41.8 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, according to U.S. Census data, down from 43.6 percent in the 2006 midterms. The number of African-Americans and Hispanics voting in midterms has been increasing.
In 2006, 38.6 percent of African-Americans and 19.3 percent of Hispanics voted in midterm congressional and statewide elections, according to Census data. In the 2010 midterms, 40.7 percent of eligible African-Americans and 21.3 percent of Hispanics voted.
Democrats and aligned groups fear those gains will be eroded by new voting rules adopted by mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures in recent years to secure the voting process against fraud.
Voting rights advocates and civil rights organizations say minorities disproportionately lack sufficient government-issued identification. At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said “it remains to be seen” what impact the laws will have on voter turnout.
All sides of the voting law debate braced for battle Tuesday. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in conjunction with other civil rights/voting advocacy groups, says it has between 1,000 and 2,000 lawyers and non-attorneys on the ground in 18 states and on telephone hotlines on the lookout for problems at the polls.
The Republican National Lawyers Association conducted 60 election law training seminars nationwide. The sessions were attended by more than 1,000 lawyers and volunteers who are available to work if problems arise Tuesday.
True the Vote has trained more than 400,000 citizen poll-watchers since 2012 and released a cellphone app to help people quickly report suspected voter fraud.
The Justice Department, which has wrestled with Texas, South Carolina and other states over voting law changes, dispatched federal monitors to 18 states for the elections.
“This is all focused on the idea that every eligible American citizen should be able to cast a ballot if they choose to do so today,” Earnest said. “Election Day seems to be a unifying day, and I think this is the kind of principle the Democrats, independents and Republicans all agree on.”
Photo: Stan and Diane Cantrell of Gautier, Miss., look at a sample ballot before voting at the Gautier Convention Center on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (John Fitzhugh/Biloxi Sun Herald/MCT)