The Rev. Dr. Franklyn Richardson longs for the old days, when all it took was Sunday sermons by African-American ministers to fire up their flocks to get registered and vote in local, state and federal elections.
“In the past, all we had to do was encourage people to register,” said Richardson, the senior pastor of the Grace Baptist Church of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and Port St. Lucie, Fla., and the chair of the Conference of National Black Churches. “Now it’s a different animal.”
African-American churches, historically at the forefront of the nation’s civil and voting rights efforts, are grappling this election year with how to navigate through the wave of new voting-access laws approved in many Republican-controlled states, laws that many African-Americans believe were implemented to suppress the votes of minorities and others.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and several hundred clergy leaders from the Conference of National Black Churches are scheduled to hold a summit Wednesday in Washington to discuss the new laws, their potential impact on African-American voters and how churches can educate parishioners, help them register and help get them to the polls on Election Day to prevent any significant drop-off from 2008.
“We will have attorneys there who are well-equipped to provide the guidance to the clergy members,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., the Congressional Black Caucus chair and a United Methodist pastor. “They will understand, before they leave, about some of the new laws in certain states designed – as we interpret them – to reduce the turnout. The day is over when they could just stand in the pulpit and say ‘Go vote. It’s your duty.’ They’ve got to now be equipped with some sophisticated information to help inspire a turnout and protect parishioners from some of the schemes that are out there.”
Since last year, at least 15 states have passed a wide array of laws that they say are aimed at reducing voter fraud. Up to 38 states, including some of those 15, are weighing legislation that would require people to show government-approved photo identification or provide proof of citizenship before registering or casting ballots.
Other changes that states have adopted or are considering include restricting voter-registration drives by third-party groups such as the League of Women Voters and the NAACP, curtailing or eliminating early voting, doing away with same-day registration and rescinding the right to vote of convicted felons who’ve served their time.
Advocates of the new laws say they’re needed to protect the integrity of the vote, to prevent illegal immigrants from casting ballots and to clamp down on voter fraud, although several studies over the years indicate that systemic voter fraud in this country is negligible.
A study last year by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice said the new laws “may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 election” by restricting voting access to 5 million people – most of them minorities, elderly or low-income.
States that have adopted such laws account for 171 electoral votes this year, 63 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, according to the Brennan Center. Some of the states with new laws – Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, and Virginia – are battlegrounds considered crucial to the fortunes of President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
African-American ministers, elected officials and civil rights advocates are especially concerned about photo ID laws. The Brennan Center study found that more than 21 million Americans don’t have government-approved photo identification. The NAACP estimates that about 25 percent of African-Americans nationwide don’t the proper documentation to meet some ID requirements. And, according to the Brennan Center, 15 percent of voters who earn less than $35,000 a year don’t have government photo ID.
Opponents of the photo ID requirement consider it the equivalent of a modern-day poll tax. They say it forces voters to pay for driver’s licenses or other government-approved picture ID in order to exercise a guaranteed constitutional right. Photo-ID advocates point out that such identification is needed to travel aboard airplanes and to purchase cigarettes and alcohol.
Seeking to minimize the poll-tax and disenfranchisement arguments, some states are making government-issued identification available free or at a reduced cost to voters who provide documentation proving they are who they say they are. Earlier this month, Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell signed an executive order calling on the state’s election board to issue non-photo IDs to all the state’s registered voters. He also ordered that a public awareness campaign be launched to educate residents about the new ID requirement.
“Every qualified citizen has the right to cast one vote,” McDonnell said in a statement. “Not two votes; not zero votes. It’s our duty as a democracy to ensure that is always the case.” McDonnell often is included on the list of possible GOP vice-presidential candidates.
The Justice Department recently rejected stringent photo ID laws in South Carolina and Texas as discriminatory. It’s reviewing Florida’s new voter laws as part of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires approval of proposed voting-law changes in 16 mostly Southern states because they have histories of discrimination.
African-American clergy members work against this unsettled electoral backdrop. African-American churches played a significant role in voter turnout in 2008, which helped Obama capture swing states including Florida, North Carolina and Virginia to win the White House.
“The black clergy will have to do a yeoman’s job of educating their congregations about the various changes that vary from state to state,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, the director and counsel of the Brennan Center’s Washington office. “The churches will really have to step up to the plate and help parishioners get the voter ID required by some states.”
At this week’s meeting, Congressional Black Caucus officials will urge African-American clergy leaders to embark on a 90-day voter empowerment effort starting in August.
The plan includes churches taking up “love offerings” – monetary collections – for church members who lack government-issued photo IDs and don’t have the means to pay for them; holding voter-registration drives in partnership with other organizations; encouraging parishioners to vote early or absentee where available and making sure that parishioners go to the correct polling stations on Election Day.
Caucus members also will show ministers innovative ways of getting the word out on the new voting laws, including giving hand-held church fans to parishioners – such as those designed by Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., and Florida election officials – that have information on how to vote absentee and how to fill out election forms.
But accomplishing some of the 90-day tasks could prove difficult.
Florida’s new laws, for example, shrank the early-voting period from 14 days to eight and eliminated voting on the last Sunday before Election Day. In 2008, scores of African-American churches in Florida and across the country held “Souls to the Polls” drives, in which churches helped parishioners go directly from the pews to the polls after Sunday services.
African-Americans composed only 13 percent of voters in Florida but 22 percent of early voters. And they accounted for 31 percent of voters on the final Sunday before the election, Dartmouth College government professor Michael Herron and University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in January.
African Methodist Church Bishop McKinley Young, whose district encompasses Florida and the Bahamas, said losing that last Sunday “hurts the scope and reach of the people with ‘Souls to the Polls’ ” and will make turnout efforts tougher for African-American clergy.
“We have a challenge, and we’re not going to let these rules hinder us,” he said. “We worked hard in 2008 and we’ll work even harder in 2012.”