Black clergy target voter turnout challenges

WASHINGTON — Atlanta Bishop Kenneth W. Carter is trying to shepherd his Christian Methodist Episcopal Church flock to the polls this fall by asking each member to register three friends and “disciple” them to the voting booth.

Education is essential, Carter said, considering the recent changes making it more difficult to vote in Georgia and elsewhere, from voter identification laws to early voting cutbacks.

“It appears to me there’s a mechanism that’s going on preventing people who want to vote to vote in this country,” Carter said in an interview Wednesday.

He was attending a conference co-hosted by the Atlanta-based Conference of National Black Churches and the Congressional Black Caucus that focused on what they call a proliferation of legal hurdles to voting this year. They include cost-cutting reductions to early voting; and ID laws, billed as fraud-prevention measures though many who oppose them claim the laws disenfranchise minority voters.

Georgia implemented a voter ID law in 2007 that has withstood repeated court challenges. Several other states have followed suit in recent years as Republicans have taken over more statehouses. Opponents of voter ID laws argue that poor, young and minority voters are disproportionately unlikely to have an ID.

Supporters of voter ID laws say they prevent fraud, and minority concerns are overblown. Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative Heritage Foundation looked at data from Georgia and concluded: “The state’s specific turnout data on racial minorities also shows that the claim that voter ID will ‘suppress’ their vote lacks any foundation in facts.”

At Wednesday’s event, critics of voter ID laws urged black clergy to stand at the forefront of a counterattack by getting their parishioners to the polls.

Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, was thrilled to see most of the clergy members in the audience raise their hands when she asked how many had voter registration drives.

“They are the center of the black community, they still are,” Arnwine said in an interview. “And it’s so critical they are involved and engaged, because if they’re not involved and engaged, everything is lost.”

Though most of the conference speakers are technically nonpartisan, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., emphasized the politics at play. Butterfield noted that President Barack Obama won North Carolina by 14,000 votes out of more than 4.3 million cast in 2008.

“If we had a voter ID law in North Carolina, he would not have won North Carolina,” Butterfield said.

However, a Heritage Foundation report using state data said Georgia has issued 26,000 voter IDs since its law passed, and minority turnout has spiked in recent years. Even without Obama on the ballot, the 2010 midterm election saw a 66 percent increase in Latino voters and a 44 percent increase in African-American voters over 2006. The white vote grew 11 percent.

“The Justice Department and other outspoken opponents of voter ID should stop standing in the way and allow states to implement rea­sonable and demonstrably nondis­criminatory laws that are intended to ensure the integrity and security of the election process,” von Spakovsky wrote.

Some of the biggest skirmishes of the ballot battle are coming in key presidential election swing states. In Florida, state officials have attempted to purge thousands of voters who might not be citizens from the rolls and imposed new restrictions on outside groups that register voters. In Ohio, poll workers are no longer required to notify misplaced voters where their correct precinct is. In Iowa, a Republican governor denied felons who had served out their time the automatic right to vote, reversing an order from his Democratic predecessor.

Church involvement in the issue carries risks for their nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service. Voter registration drives are legal — black churches held a nationwide Easter weekend voter registration push this year — but pastors cannot advocate from the pulpit for a candidate. IRS officials discussed the legal distinctions at a panel Wednesday.

Most new voting laws have faced legal challenges, and many are under review by the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which gives the administration authority to review any voting law changes in states and jurisdictions — including Georgia — with a history of discrimination.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in the event’s keynote speech, detailed actions his department is taking against potentially discriminatory laws while defending the Voting Rights Act itself.

“Each of these challenges to Section 5 claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2012 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965, and that Section 5 is no longer necessary,” Holder said. “I wish this were the case, but the reality is that, in jurisdictions across the country, both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common — and have not yet been relegated to the pages of history.”

Holder promised to vigorously pursue all allegations of voter fraud but stressed that there are few reported cases.