For Rock the Vote volunteers who roam rock concerts and college campuses looking for students to register, the typical dress code is jeans and a T-shirt.
But this year, many Rock the Vote organizers have traded their college clothes for suits and ties. That’s because they’re spending almost as much time in the courtroom fighting new restrictions on voters as they are out registering voters.
Rock the Vote is one of several dozen organizations, from civil rights groups to Latino, labor and women’s groups, that have launched a multipart campaign to push back against new registration rules for voters that have been enacted in many states. The fight over voter access has triggered state-level lobbying, ballot initiatives and lawsuits, and the issue will likely land before the Supreme Court.
Voting rights activists are responding to a wave of state laws enacted after the 2010 elections, which ushered in GOP majorities in more than two dozen state legislatures. Voting rights advocates have struggled to gain traction amid public indifference and more visible collective bargaining fights, but they are starting to win attention at the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill.
More than a half-dozen states have enacted new voter ID laws, and three passed new laws requiring voters to show proof of citizenship. Other laws restrict voter registration drives by third-party groups such as Rock the Vote and roll back early and weekend voting. South Carolina and Texas also have challenged Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of discrimination to obtain Justice Department approval before changing their voting rules.
“The franchise, in my opinion, is under attack,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (Ohio), one of several House and Senate Democrats who have responded with press conferences, field hearings and legislation.
Most recently, Rep. Steve Cohen (Tenn.) introduced the Voter ID Accessibility Act, which would require any state with a photo ID mandate to notify voters and offer them a free ID. “We haven’t seen much indication of voting fraud, but we have seen a lot of fraud in the mortgage business and the financial business,” Cohen said. “You wonder why they’re doing this.”
The Democratic National Committee has also pushed back with a website launched late last year. The fight over new state voting rules is the latest skirmish in an ongoing war between conservatives who allege widespread voter fraud and progressives up in arms over voter disenfranchisement.
Civil rights activists say the new rules disproportionately target minority, student and elderly voters, who tend to vote Democratic, and could bar up to 5 million voters from the polls this fall. Like many fighting the restrictions, Cohen blamed the wave of new state laws on an orchestrated campaign by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit associated with David and Charles Koch, two businessmen well-known for funding conservative causes.