Sara Kilker isn’t normally one to pick up a sign and protest in the street. But the idea that her friend, a nearly 80-year-old elderly African American widower, won’t be able to vote because he doesn’t have an official photo ID prompted her Tuesday to join about 1,000 chanting protesters who marched down the main drag of Tampa’s Ybor City.
“He let his driver’s license expire in 2002 because it wasn’t safe for him to drive,” Kilker said of her friend. “He tried to get his birth certificate from Georgia but was told he needed an ID to get it, but he can’t get an ID without his birth certificate. I can’t help but think there must be many other people like him.”
Social justice groups say there are, and non-partisan studies indicate they may be in the millions. The Brennan Center for Social Justice at New York State University of Law reports that about 21 million could be disenfranchised by the new voter ID laws. Derek Turner, spokesman for the NAACP, said that a few hundred thousand who were previously incarcerated could be affected by changes to voting laws in Florida and Iowa. Cuts to the early voting in counties not protected under the Voting Rights Act could raise that number to 22 million.
The Florida Consumer Action Network (FCAN) and the Rainbow Push Coalition organized the protest rally and march during the Republican National Convention to speak out against voter suppression, which has become a national hot-button issue as several Republican-led states have implemented more restrictive voting measures.
“Most of the public doesn’t understand that not everyone has a driver’s license and that not everyone has a copy of their birth certificate,” said Mike Long, an FCAN organizer. “They don’t understand just how horrible these laws are.”
Several crucial battleground states adopted stricter voting requirements in the past two years ostensibly to cut down on voter fraud.
Florida has been particularly aggressive in attacking voter fraud under the leadership of Republican Gov. Rick Scott. The state not only requires an official photo identification to vote, but has also shortened the days of early voting and attempted to purge voter rolls of illegal immigrants and convicted felons who were stripped of their rights to participate in elections. In addition, the state adopted a measure that makes it harder to register new voters by making organizations turn new registrations in within 48 hours of signing and subjecting them to fines if those registrants can’t verify their legal status.
The 48-hour requirement passed last year caused groups such as the League of Women Voters, one of the largest registration groups, to temporarily cease voter registration efforts in Florida. But Florida’s American Civil Liberties Union convinced the courts to overturn the 24-hour requirement. The League of Women resumed registration.
Groups such as the ACLU, the NAACP and FCAN argue that such strict voter requirements are thinly veiled attempts to keep minorities and young voters who are largely registered Democrats from voting in the upcoming election.
“It’s been a very coordinated campaign by Republican governors and their legislatures and they haven’t even tried to hide it,” Long said, referring to a statement by Republican Mike Turzai, Pennsylvania’s House majority leader. Turzai was captured on video in June saying that the state’s new voter ID law “is going to allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania—done.”
CBS reported last month that Pennsylvania officials released data that indicated as many as 750,000 voters, 9.2 percent, could be denied the right to cast a ballot due to the law passed in May that requires a valid picture ID. More than 160,000 of those voters were considered inactive since they haven’t voted in five years or responded to requests for a current address.
Earlier this year Florida announced that it had identified potentially 180,000 residents illegally registered to vote in the state.
Florida’s attempt to purge voter rolls set off a wave of lawsuits. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in June arguing that the measure unfairly targets minorities and is illegal under the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires federal approval of such a purge. The U.S. Department of Justice also filed papers against Florida stating that federal law prevents states from purging voter rolls less than 90 days before a statewide election. A judge ruled that legal protection does not apply to illegal residents.
Meanwhile, Gov. Scott sued the federal government for the right to use the Homeland Security database to verify the registrants. Homeland Security eventually relented and the state now plans to resume the purge. The DOJ has filed more papers in court in attempt to again prevent it.
Athough the issue is pending, election supervisors in Florida paused the purge after it was discovered that at least 500 targeted registrants were misidentified and legally have the right to vote. The Tampa Bay Times reported that only 40 registrants were found to be illegally registered and the majority of those had never voted. Some were unaware that they were even registered.
However, some groups against voter fraud still argue that voter rolls are filled with people not legally allowed to vote. Two members from the Protect the Polls, a group of Florida gun owners, showed up at the voter suppression rally on Tuesday with a petition to encourage the Florida legislation to adopt a new law that would allow registered gun owners to patrol polls and shoot insistent illegal voters.
“What we want to do is make it so that if you suspect someone is committing voting fraud and that you have a legitimate reason to believe it, that you can legally pull out your weapon and not face criminal charges,” said John Nelson, who wore a Romney button on his blue button-down.
The two men from West Palm Beach, Fla. were immediately surrounded by protesters at the rally who shouted them down with angry denials of voter fraud and calls such as “Show us the tax returns!” referring to Mitt Romney’s reluctance to release his tax returns to public scrutiny.
Nelson said they were asked to leave the rally and were reluctant to answer reporters’ questions as they left. They said their initiative was not a hoax. “We didn’t expect this,” Nelson said of the crowd’s outrage.
When asked why guns were necessary at polls to prevent voter fraud, Nelson said. “It’s a Florida thing. Hey, we love our guns. We are piggy-backing on the Stand Your Ground law,” a reference to the law that has come under national scrutiny since the Trayvon Martin shooting earlier this year.
Nelson said the group has about 1,500 signatures on their petition and one man was sighted signing it at the park gathering. However, the Protect the Polls canvassers were short on details about their initiative and referred questions to their website, which also offers scant information.
Following the brief distraction of two self-professed Republican attendees, protesters representing a variety of groups from MoveOn.org to the NAACP to Occupy set off on a lively impromptu march under the close watch of hundreds of law enforcement officers on bicycles, foot and armored horses.
Although several of the Occupy protesters violated the city’s RNC ordinance against wearing masks, there were no arrests. Several protesters costumed in kilts, elephant masks, and others, painted as mimes, stopped briefly to perform skits along the way.
Kilner, however, wore only a pink T-shirt with the slogan “Pink Slip Rick,” and carried a sign reading “Rick Scott Hands Off My Vote.”
She said several members of her social club are working to get her friend an ID before the election. In case they fail to secure it in time, they are helping him get an absentee ballot.
“We hope that his vote will be counted,” Kilner said. “It’s just isn’t fair that he has to go through this.”