Voting rights battles emerge in the South

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

Minority voters in the South face additional hurdles this election year.

An extensive purge of suspected ineligible voters that disproportionately targeted minorities in Florida was halted by the Justice Department in June, and a nonpartisan investigator will be appointed to determine why thousands of voters were removed from voting rolls in Tennessee earlier this year.

Florida cut its early voting hours almost in half to save money, state officials said. The state also eliminated early voting on the Sunday before Election Day in November, a day that had become known as “Souls to the Polls” for the large number of black voters who went straight from church services to vote.

In North Carolina, the Republican-controlled General Assembly used the 2010 congressional and state legislative redistricting process to create controversial minority-majority districts that concentrate black voting power in a reduced number of legislative seats.

“They stacked and packed and bleached black voters out of districts for strictly partisan reasons,” said the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Courts have intervened 24 times in the last 30 years to alter North Carolina redistricting plans, and new lines this year divided hundreds of voting precincts into different districts. This means that neighbors voting in the same precinct may have different people running on their ballots for state and federal races. In some precincts, there were 30 or more different ballots offered during the May 8 primary.

“One precinct in Wake County has more than 17 different kinds of ballots,” said Carol Hazard, a precinct judge in Orange County, N.C., which includes Chapel Hill.

Brenda Williams, a physician and civil rights activist in Sumter, S.C., has spent thousands of dollars helping more than 100 local voters prepare for the photo ID law.

For the majority of voters who do not have ID, applying means they must pay for required personal documents.

Williams has been registering voters with her husband, Joe, for the 30 years she has owned the Excelsior Medical Clinic. Many elderly, rural voters in and around Sumter do not have a photo ID, Williams said. The majority of these voters were born at a time when hospitals refused black patients and babies who were delivered at home, and their births were not recorded accurately.

“I know scores of people who have never had government-issued photo identification,” Williams said. “They’re not criminals, never broken any laws, never been incarcerated. They don’t have photo ID because of rules made years, decades ago.”

Rutherford said he has let checks go uncashed because he didn’t have a photo ID. But with Williams’ help, the Walmart store employee isn’t waiting for courts and legislatures to agree on the legality of photo voter IDs.

“As a citizen, I think everyone should vote,” Rutherford said. “If you don’t get out there and vote, who’s going to talk for you? We can’t talk for ourselves because nobody is going to listen, so we have to put someone there to help us.”

“Who Can Vote?” was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.