CHARLOTTE, N.C. – President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign and the Democratic National Committee are coordinating and deploying thousands of lawyers to help voters deal with an array of recent voting law changes, according to national and state campaign officials.
Democrats and voting rights group say laws enacted across the country, from voter ID requirements to restrictions on third-party registration groups to shortened early-voting windows, are enacted largely by Republican legislatures and governors in a systematic effort to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters. Republicans across the country have said the changes are about preventing election fraud.
“The entire Republican program built around this anti-fraud theme had many component parts,” said Robert Bauer, the lead lawyer for both the Democratic National Convention and Organizing for America, Obama’s reelection campaign. “All of them organized around a central objective of disenfranchisement.”
Bauer made the comments Thursday during a Voting Rights Institute meeting at the Democratic National Convention. The Voting Rights Institute, created by the DNC after the 2000 election, also held a voter-suppression panel that blasted voting law changes in Florida, Ohio and other states.
Bauer said the changes to the laws could make local election officials, many of whom he said were trying to do the right thing, make mistakes that disenfranchise voters.
“Votes lost,” Bauer said. “Votes cast not counted. Voters turned away at the polls.”
Democrats and voting rights groups have challenged many of the laws in court, but time is running short before the Nov. 6 election.
“The focus really needs to shift at this point,” David Shultz, a professor of public policy at Hamline University School of Business in St. Paul, Minn., said in a telephone interview.
Bauer echoed that sentiment Thursday.
“We’re not going to litigate our way to election day,” Bauer said. “There are too many uncertainties.”
The campaign has instead focused on direct action.
Voter-protection teams, as Bauer and the campaign call them, have been working in battleground states since the beginning of 2012. The teams are tasked with monitoring local election laws and regulations and reporting any “shenanigans” or other potential problems through the chain of command. They talk with election officials about voter requirements and other regulation changes that could confuse voters.
The campaign is also asking lawyers working with the voter-protection teams to volunteer as poll workers and poll watchers so they can monitor the process.
“On the ground, every day, this is taking place,” Bauer said. “(It) involves Chicago, Washington and all of the states that are involved in this effort.”
The campaign created a website, Gottavote.org, to help voters know what’s required to vote in their states. Another site, //ofa.bo/victory, allows volunteers to sign up as poll watchers for the Obama campaign.
Conservative poll watchers are also mobilizing. True the Vote, a Houston-based, tea party-backed voter integrity group, aims to train 1 million poll watchers for November. The group has been active already this year, sending staff to Wisconsin to train poll watchers during the unsuccessful recall election of Gov. Scott Walker. It’s also been hosting summits in places like Ohio and Colorado with conservative election administrators, where they discuss voter fraud.
Florida, a key swing state, has been ground zero in the battle over voting rights. In May 2011, the state passed a law restricting third-party voter registration drives and curtailed early voting from 14 days to eight before elections. The law took effect in 62 of the state’s 67 counties but was blocked in the other five by the U.S. Department of Justice. Those counties fall under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which forces changes in voting laws in areas with a history of discrimination to be approved by the Department of Justice or a judge.
The restrictions on third-party voter registration drives were blocked in August, and the state and the Department of Justice agreed Wednesday on a plan to offer eight 12-hour days of early voting after a panel of judges said the restrictions would disproportionately harm minorities.
In 2011 Florida also began a process of purging alleged non-citizens from its voter rolls using names from a state motor vehicle database after being denied access to a federal database. The state sued, and eventually the federal government gave the state access to the database.
“The laws disproportionately affected the more poor among us, the transportation-disadvantaged and voters more likely to be Democrats,” said Bruce Ballister, an Obama campaign volunteer from Tallahassee, Fla.
Ballister said the campaign has had to conduct extensive training for volunteers registering voters, certifying them only after they take a class, and tracks voter registration forms by number.
In Ohio, another battleground state, a 2011 law restricted early voting. Ensuing wrangling between state Democrats and Republicans got most early voting reinstated, except for the three days before the election. A federal judge blocked the restrictions Aug. 31.
Still, Democrats say voters are confused and may not know what they need to vote.
“We are doing everything we can on the ground,” said Rhine McLin, the former mayor of Dayton and the vice chairwoman of the Ohio Democratic Party. The party, along with churches and community groups, is using social media and talking with as many people as possible, urging them to register and telling them what they’ll need at the polls.
“We are not taking any chances,” she said Wednesday in Charlotte.
Another battleground state, Pennsylvania, enacted a voter ID law that creates confusion, Democrats say. Some forms of ID are legal, but others, like student IDs without expiration dates, aren’t.
“The state’s not doing anything to help inform voters,” said Greg Stewart, the Center County Democratic Party chairman.
Stewart said Democrats are going ward to ward in cities and house to house in rural areas talking to people about what they’ll need at the polls. Democrats are also identifying people who might lack proper ID and helping them get one, he said.
The law survived a challenge in state court and will be heard by the state Supreme Court in the coming weeks.
Kevin Greenburg, the Obama campaign’s lawyer in Philadelphia County, said voter-protection teams will be in place, but added that he’s optimistic the Supreme Court will strike the law down.
“We need to be prepared for whichever way the court rules,” he said after Thursday’s meeting in Charlotte. “That means recruiting lawyers and educating voters for the next 62 days.”