NAACP’s Vegas confab focuses on voter suppression

The NAACP is worried about expanding voter suppression efforts across the nation, particularly against African-American youth, as states pass legislation with new voter ID requirements and shorter early voting periods.

That’s the main topic for the group’s annual convention starting Saturday in Las Vegas.

Some 22 states have new and more restrictive voting laws that will go into effect before the 2014 mid-term election on Nov. 4, according to Rock the Vote, an organization dedicated to boosting young voter turnout. The group cited North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Tennessee as examples of efforts to make it harder for youth to cast votes.

Most of those new laws are coming from states with Republican governors, said Hilary Shelton, vice president of policy and advocacy for the NAACP, an organization that played a major role in America’s civil rights movement, which did away with segregation and blatant practices to prevent African-Americans from voting.

The new restrictions come after black voters surpassed whites in turnout in the 2012 election for the first time in U.S. history: 66.2 percent compared to 64.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

“There was a good movement forward if you look at all the strategies and tactics about intimidation, all the way through burning churches and grandfather clauses and everything else,” Shelton said in an interview Tuesday. “Unfortunately, in many areas of our country, it’s very difficult to elect an African-American. And some people are saying, ‘Why bother.’”

Shelton said that’s why it’s so important to push back against voter suppression efforts after the NAACP and other groups worked so hard to boost African-American turnout, especially among young voters who backed President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, in record numbers.

By age, 55 percent of black voters from 18 to 24 turned out in 2008 compared to 49 percent of white voters in the same age group, the U.S. Census found. Those numbers fell in 2012 — to 49 percent for blacks and 42 percent for whites.

The annual NAACP convention is being held in Las Vegas for the first time, according to the civil rights group. In one of the highlights of the meeting, Vice President Joe Biden will speak to the expected 4,000 delegates and guests Wednesday morning. Biden is popular among the working class, including progressive Democrats and minorities.

This year’s convention coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and “Freedom Summer,” an effort to register blacks to vote in the South. It’s also the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education case when the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional state laws that created separate public schools for blacks and whites.

In a setback, however, last year the U.S. Supreme Court on a 5-to-4 vote invalidated a section of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states with a history of discrimination to get federal clearance before changing voting laws and practices — a case that opened the door for states to impose new voting restrictions, according to critics.

The Obama administration is moving to oppose new restrictions. On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the U.S. Department of Justice plans to intervene in court challenges to laws that limit voting in Wisconsin and Ohio.

On a positive note, Shelton said Obama’s historic election helped the NAACP expand voter participation among African-Americans because it “shattered the glass ceiling” and the president put forward an agenda that African-Americans prefer over Republican policies.

As an example, Shelton said 70 percent of blacks didn’t have health care insurance before Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act. Also, Obama increased Pell Grants, which many black students rely on to pay for university and college education.

“We’re not the only people who are poor in society,” Shelton said. “But as we talk about (voter) participation across the board, we have to look at what the priorities are. Who gets what, when, where and how.”

Shelton blamed much of the voter suppression efforts on Republicans, whom he said are threatened by the growing young voter and minority demographics because those groups lean heavily Democratic.

Still, Shelton praised the GOP under the leadership of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who doesn’t have a speaking role at the NAACP convention but hopes to attend a Wednesday night dinner. Former RNC Chairman Michael Steele will participate in an NAACP forum, however, with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

“The Republican Party overall recognizes the need to diversify,” Shelton said, adding the RNC has hired 100 people around the country to recruit minorities to the GOP. “In my conversations with Priebus, he wants more African-American delegates” to participate in the 2016 Republican National Convention, which nominates the GOP presidential pick.

Shelton said the GOP would have to align itself more with issues important to blacks, including efforts to help them obtain jobs, housing and education, before more African-Americans will join the Republican Party, however.

“It’s like, you can invite me to the party, but if you’re not serving the food I want to eat or the music I want to dance to, I’m not coming,” Shelton said.

Besides Biden, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Democratic U.S. Reps. Dina Titus and Steven Horsford, Nevada’s first black congressman, are planning to address the NAACP convention at Mandalay Bay.

In Nevada, efforts to roll back or get rid of a two-week early voting period and to require voters to show ID have failed — along with efforts to increase participation by allowing same-day voter registration.

In 2013, GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed Assembly Bill 440, which would have let people register to vote as late as 5 p.m. on the Friday before the Tuesday election. The bill also would have allowed people to register and immediately vote at early voting places in the two weeks before Election Day. The secretary of state wanted the bill, which narrowly passed along party lines with Democratic support, because 7,000 people registered too late to vote in the 2012 general election.

“There is no indication these deadlines are detrimental to Nevada’s voting process, or need to be changed,” Sandoval wrote in his veto message, referring to the current voter registration deadline of 21 days before Election Day.

In 2013, Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, upset progressive groups by proposing an electronic poll book with voters’ photos. His proposal would have put the burden on the state and county elections departments to verify identification without the voter having to present a photo ID. The proposal failed, however, mostly because of the cost, anywhere from $787,200 to $3.2 million for Clark County alone, according to estimates.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387’-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.