On the Sunday before the 2008 presidential election, church goers in Florida streamed from the pews to early voting places to cast their ballots. The so-called Souls to the Polls campaigns were a windfall for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and the Democrats. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, more than 32 percent of those who voted early on that last Sunday before Election Day were African American, and nearly 24 percent were Latino. Moreover, according to a report released by the Florida State Senate, 52 percent of people who voted early in the 2008 election were registered Democrats.
“Preachers would preach a great sermon and then march to the polls with their congregations,” said Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy and policy at the NAACP.
But voting laws passed in Florida last year have limited early voting, including on the Sunday before Election Day. Opponents say the early voting limitations are part of a broader effort by Republican-led legislatures across the country to suppress the black, minority and elderly voting blocs, groups expected to be key to President Obama’s bid for reelection in 2012. The efforts include new voting laws passed in more than a dozen states, some requiring government-issued identification to vote and others limiting third-party voter registration drives.
The controversial voter ID laws, which Democratic officials have called “a full-scale assault” on minority voters, have drawn media attention lately. Special interest groups, including the NAACP and labor unions, have held rallies and filed lawsuits against them. In a high-profile speech U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged political parties “to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success.” And last month the Justice Department blocked a law in South Carolina requiring voter IDs, while it continues to investigate a similar law in Texas.
But opponents of the laws say other efforts, including congressional redistricting and limitations on early voting, are equally as repressive to minority voters. In some states the redistricting efforts — part of the traditional gerrymandering of congressional districts done every 10 years after the census — have resulted in “packing,” or shifting large swaths of racial minorities into districts that already are predominantly minority, essentially neutralizing their votes.
Republicans contend that the stricter voting laws are needed to protect against voter fraud, though there is little evidence that widespread fraud exists. Florida also has some of the toughest restrictions on the rights of ex-felons to vote, a cumbersome, complicated process that some have called punitive. In Alabama and Kansas, voters must show proof of citizenship to register.
Shelton, who is also the director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, likened the new voter laws to voter suppression tactics used during the Jim Crow era, when blacks were routinely intimidated at the polls, were forced to pay poll taxes or were routinely humiliated by having to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap in order to vote.
“It’s eerily familiar. It’s scary,” Shelton told The Huffington Post. “We thought we put Jim Crow in its grave, buried it six feet under and were through with it once and for all. But this is a more sophisticated, more high-tech approach to racial discrimination. This isn’t Jim Crow, this is James E. Crow Esq. Jr.”
Shelton continued: “Look at what’s being done now. What they are doing is using tools that don’t have race attached to it, but when they are applied, you get the same impact.”