National Press Club

Voter education group, at Newsmaker, unveils pilot program to connect voters

May 5, 2014 | By Galen Tan | galentan@gmail.com

Voter Empowerment Action Project (VEAP) President Yvette Lewis announced formation of a new citizen-to-citizen outreach program, called Voter Connect, to connect voters across all states, at a May 5 National Press Club Newsmaker.

VEAP, formed to educate voters about their state’s election laws, will pilot Voter Connect in North Carolina, Lewis said. The pilot program, unveiled one day before the state's May 6 primaries, aims to improve voter turnout and assist voters navigate new voting legislation by connecting North Carolina voters with Maryland volunteers.

VEAP chose North Carolina, Lewis said, because of the challenges that voters face there and her personal connection to the state. She is a native of Charlotte.

“I grew up listening to the stories of my grandfather, an educated African-American man, who had to take a literacy test in order to register to vote,” Lewis said.

North Carolina is one of many states that have changed laws governing voting in the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively lifted the need for certain states to obtain federal preclearance before changing their voting laws.

These changes are intended to prevent vote fraud, but are likely to depress voter turnout, especially for minorities, Lewis said. She estimated that more than 300,000 individuals in North Carolina could be affected.

“It is not our mission to persuade people how to vote, that’s what candidates are supposed to do,” Lewis said. “But you can’t stack the deck while you’re doing it.”

A panelist appearing with Lewis at the Newsmaker, Karl Sandstrom, senior counsel with the law firm Perkins Cole, emphasized the importance of Voter Connect in light of Shelby County v. Holder. Drawing parallels with the 1876 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Reese, Sandstrom noted that the court’s 1876 ruling allowed states to disenfranchise black voters without enacting laws that explicitly discriminated on race.

“What followed were laws that avoided mentioning race but were easily employed, and readily employed, to ensure that minorities would not be voting,” Sandstrom said.

These laws, which included poll taxes and literacy tests, excluded minority voters. “African American registration went from 75 percent in 1876 to single digits by 1900,” Sandstrom said. Similarly, he added, recent voting-law changes could affect voter participation, especially for minorities.

Public opinion already favors broader enfranchisement over voter fraud prevention, according to another panelist, Mark Mellman of the Mellman Group, a political polling and consulting firm. Referencing a 2013 Bipartisan Policy Center survey, Mellman reported that the majority -- 61 percent -- of participants preferred ensuring that eligible individuals were allowed to exercise their right to vote rather than ensuring that no one commits voter fraud.

Among other impacts of changes to voting laws, Mellman observed that the North Carolina government found that between 300,000 and 600,000 registered state voters do not possess valid IDs as required by the new laws. Women, particularly those of color, are overrepresented among those without valid IDs, said Mellman.

“What’s going on in North Carolina has the potential to interfere with the exercise with the right to vote in very serious ways,” Mellman said.