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State voting laws challenged

Mar 9, 2012 - By William Douglas, McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Taking a page from its past, the NAACP will go before a United Nations panel in Switzerland this week to argue that new voting laws approved by some U.S. states violate civil and human rights by suppressing the votes of minorities and others.

A delegation from the venerable civil rights organization will present its case in Geneva on Wednesday before the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body that normally addresses troubles in places such as Libya, Syria and the Ivory Coast.

The Geneva appearance is part of an NAACP strategy rooted in the 1940s and 1950s, when the group looked to the United Nations and the international community for support in its domestic battle for civil rights for blacks and against lynching.

"It was in 1947 that W.E.B. Dubois delivered his speech and appealed to the world at the U.N.," NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous said Thursday. "Now, like then, the principal concern is voting rights. The past year more states in this country have passed more laws pushing more voters out of the ballot box than any point since Jim Crow."

Supporters of the new laws say the action by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is a curious move, but one that isn't likely to produce tangible results.

"The NAACP can appeal to whatever body it chooses to -- the U.N. doesn't run our elections," said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of True the Vote, a tea party-founded anti-voter fraud group that's seeking to mobilize thousands of volunteers to work as poll watchers and to validate existing voter-registration lists. "It has been talked to death whether or not (requiring) ID disenfranchises anyone."

Jealous acknowledged that the Human Rights Council has no direct authority over American states, but he hopes that it can exert influence through public pressure.

"The power of the U.N. on state governments historically is to shame them and to put pressure on the U.S. government to bring them into line with global standards for democracy, best practices for democracy, that's where we are," he said. "There are plenty of examples -- segregation of the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa to the death penalty here in the U.S. -- of global outrage having an impact."

Jealous said the U.N. panel will hear Wednesday from two Americans impacted by the new laws: a convicted felon who served her time and a University of Texas student who might not be able to vote this year because of a law approved by the state legislature requiring voters to show government-approved photo identification.

Since last year, 15 states have passed new voting laws; currently 38 states, including some of those 15, are weighing legislation to require people to show government-approved photo identification or provide proof of citizenship before casting their ballots.

Other changes adopted or under consideration by states 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 voter registration; and rescinding the right to vote of convicted felons who have served their time.

Proponents of the new laws say they are 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 indicate that systemic voter fraud is negligible.

The NAACP, civil liberties groups, voting experts and some lawmakers say the new laws smack of poll taxes and literacy tests -- devices that in previous generations blocked blacks from voting.

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 minority, elderly, young or low-income earners.

States that have adopted new laws account for 171 electoral votes in 2012 -- or 63 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, the Brennan Center report said.

The study also found that more than 21 million Americans don't possess government-issued photo identification. The NAACP estimates that about 25 percent of African-Americans nationwide don't possess the proper documentation to meet ID requirements.

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