Black Voters Feel Targeted By Election Restrictions

New voter ID laws and other voting restrictions have been enacted in a number of states since the last major election. And that's raised special concerns among African Americans, who feel they're being targeted. Black church leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus met in Washington Wednesday to find ways African-American voters aren't discouraged from turning out in November.

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And the disputes over voter eligibility extend well beyond Florida. New voter ID laws, and other voting restrictions, have been enacted in a number of states since the last major election. And that has raised special concern among African-Americans, who feel they are being targeted.

Black church leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus met yesterday here in Washington, D.C., to discuss how to make sure African-American voters aren't discouraged from turning out in November.

Here's NPR's Pam Fessler.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Leaning, oh, leaning...

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: It was part church service, part political strategy session. A dozen lawmakers, and 200 pastors with the Conference of National Black Churches, gathered to talk about voting and what many African-Americans see as a threat to one of their most sacred rights. It was a hard-won right, congressman G.K. Butterfield told the crowd. But now...

REP. G.K. BUTTERFIELD: All of this progress that we have made is under assault. There is a right-wing conspiracy that is alive and well in this country, that is trying to take us back to 1900 - and even before.

FESSLER: Whether it's new state laws requiring voters to show government-issued photo ID at the polls, or restrictions on registration drives, or reduced hours for early voting. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat, says it's not so much an effort to take away the right to vote, but something more subtle.

BUTTERFIELD: If black voter participation can be diminished even by 10 percent, it will make that critical difference.

FESSLER: Especially in a close election. Of course, those behind the new laws - primarily Republicans - say they're absolutely not trying to discourage legitimate voters from going to the polls; that they're only trying to prevent voter fraud, and to clean up a registration system that almost everyone agrees is a mess. Whatever the motivation, there's little disagreement that African-Americans will be among the most affected.

NICOLE AUSTIN-HILLERY: They register to vote when the NAACP sets up voter registration tables. They register to vote when the League of Women Voters sets up registration tables.

FESSLER: Nicole Austin-Hillery is with the Brennan Center at NYU.

AUSTIN-HILLERY: So when those organizations are pulling out, that means those communities that have depended on them to do their voter registration, are being gravely impacted.

FESSLER: She says African-Americans are also less likely to have government-issued photo ID, and more likely to take advantage of early voting - especially on Sundays, a special concern for this crowd.

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FESSLER: McKinley Young is the bishop of several hundred African Methodist Episcopal churches in Florida, a state that's just cut back Sunday voting. He says it's especially appealing for African-Americans.

BISHOP MCKINLEY YOUNG: They don't have the same job restrictions, travel restrictions that they would have during the week.

FESSLER: And many black churches conduct what are called Souls to the Polls drives, where they take parishioners to vote right after church. This year, says Young...

YOUNG: We only have one Sunday, in the early voting opportunities, this time. But we're going to use every, every, every minute of that to get our people out and to the polls, and to make certain that they vote.

FESSLER: And that was the main message yesterday: Pastors shouldn't retreat in the face of the new laws. Missouri Democrat Emanuel Cleaver is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. He says one of the biggest problems is uncertainty about what people can and cannot do.

REP. EMANUEL CLEAVER: One of the ministers asked me this morning whether or not the churches can still do voter registration - as an example of how confusing things are during these threatening times.

FESSLER: Churches can, in fact, register voters. Cleaver says pastors will also be asked to take up collections - or love offerings - to help needy parishioners pay for documents they need to get photo ID, and to help educate parishioners about the new laws so that they don't hit stumbling blocks when they do go to the polls.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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