Voting rights battles emerge in the South

Caitlin O’Donnell | 8/22/2012, 10:31 a.m.

Raymond Rutherford has voted for decades. But this year, he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to cast a ballot.

The Sumter, S.C., resident, 59, has never had a government-issued photo ID because a midwife’s error listed him as Ramon Croskey on his birth certificate. It’s wrong on his social security card, too.

Rutherford has tried to find the time and money to correct his birth certificate as he waits to see if the photo voter ID law is upheld by a three-judge U.S. District Court panel, scheduled to convene in Washington, D.C., on September 24.

In June, South Carolina officials indicated in federal court filings that they will quickly implement the law before the November election if it is upheld. Voters without photo ID by November would be able to sign an affidavit explaining why they could not get an ID in time.

South Carolina’s photo voter ID law is similar to a series of restrictive election measures passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures in states of the former Confederacy, including Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia. North Carolina’s General Assembly failed to override Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto of a photo voter ID bill.

Thirty-seven states have considered photo voter ID laws since 2010. In November, five states — Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Kansas and Pennsylvania — will vote under strict new photo voter ID laws. A judge could soon decide whether the Pennsylvania law violates the state constitution as voting rights advocates claim.

Supporters argue the laws are important protections against in-person voter impersonation fraud, but civil rights organizations and election historians see evidence of a more sinister legacy. Obtaining certificates of birth, marriage and divorce needed to get a proper photo ID can be an obstacle for otherwise eligible and longtime voters like Rutherford.     “Today, there are more laws restricting access to polls since those that were against the initial passage of the Voting Rights Act,” said J. Morgan Kousser, professor of history and social science at the California Institute of Technology and author of two books on race and voting rights in the South.

The Voting Rights Act requires local governments with a history of voting rights discrimination to get U.S. Department of Justice approval for changes to their election laws. The federal law faces a sustained legal challenge. Voting-rights supporters call those challenges an uncomfortable reminder of the poll taxes and literacy tests that prompted the law in the days of Jim Crow.

States such as Georgia and Indiana point to increased turnouts across all demographic categories in the 2008 election compared to elections immediately before the states passed photo voter ID laws.

Kousser said such comparisons are moot because of the unprecedented enthusiasm that Barack Obama generated among young and minority voters. A July 2012 National Urban League study showed that black voters tipped the election for Obama in North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia and Florida.

“People died for the right to vote — friends of mine, colleagues of mine,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said in a May 9 House floor speech on an amendment to cut federal spending for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The amendment was withdrawn.