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Chicago’s New Course Against Voter Suppression

A few weeks ago, I raised a question here on The Stump that had been bothering me for some time—why were the big voter registration outfits like the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote pulling out of the Electoral College gold mine of Florida in response to the harsh new restrictions there on registering voters, rather than plowing ahead with their work? Couldn’t the groups just try their best to conform with the new rules while figuring they could mount a pretty good public-relations stand if they did get accused of violating such obviously excessive rules (which include requiring that any new registration arrive at the appropriate state office within two days, at the penalty of a heavy fine)?

Here’s what I was told at the time:

Well, it turns out that a lot of thought went into this question. And several of the big voter registration groups decided that, for now, it was better to challenge the new rules in court rather than in the street, as it were. The thinking was that proceeding under the new rules was a lose-lose proposition. If one was able to proceed without getting accused of violating the rules, it might buttress the argument that the new rules were workable—even if the rules resulted in far lower registration totals in the past, as presumably would be the case. Meanwhile, if one did get accused of breaking the rules, the penalty might not be enough to provoke media attention and general outrage; but the resulting large fine or blot on one’s record might still be enough to cause real hardship for the volunteer in question.
Lee Rowland of New York University’s Brennan Center, which is representing the groups challenging the Florida rules in court, noted sympathetically that the NAACP, which is pressing ahead with registering voters in Florida, has seen its registration totals decline, even as it was slapped with a warning for delivering some forms an hour outside the 24-hour window. “You’re damned if you, damned if you don’t. If you screw up then your reputation is on the line and these laws are designed to make you screw up. You get a ding on a flawless record,” she said. “The NAACP has attempted to comply with the law, and had mixed success, but the new law has clearly chilled their activity...[It] is running afoul of the rules in a way that’s not flashy and drawing media attention – they're just risking legal action and a big fine.”
The League of Women Voters, which proudly notes that it has not been cited for a single case of registration fraud in its 72 years of work, decided it was better off pulling back entirely and hoping the courts block the new rules ; a federal judge in Tallahassee is expected to decide soon whether to issue an injunction putting the new rules on hold while the challenge over their constitutionality is being weighed. “We looked at the specifics of the law and we strongly believed it would be jeopardizing to our volunteers, and that the regulations in and of themselves were simply not workable,” said Deirdre Mcnab, president of the Florida League of Women Voters. “The rules are confusing, vague and broad, and perhaps worst of all, they’re intimidating. Have you seen the forms you have to sign? It talks about $5,000 in fines and two years in prison and third-degree felonies. Knowing what I do about the law, as avid as I am to get people involved in the process, I’ve encouraged them to be very cautious or stay away entirely.”
Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, sounded a similar note in explaining why her organization pulled out of Florida and joined the lawsuit instead. “It wasn’t a decision we made lightly,” she said. “It was with a great deal of reluctance that we halted our volunteer-led programs on the ground...But at the end of the day we decided that as a prudent organization, as a volunteer organization of high school and college-age volunteers...that we couldn’t put those young people at risk.”

So I was of course struck the other day when I read in the New York Times that the Obama campaign has decided to take a different course—the course that I had imagined was superior back before inquiring of the registration organizations:

Field workers for President Obama’s campaign fanned out across the country over the weekend in an effort to confront a barrage of new voter identification laws that strategists say threaten the campaign’s hopes for registering new voters ahead of the November election.

In Wisconsin, where a new state law requires those registering voters to be deputized in whichever of the state’s 1,800 municipalities they are assigned to, the campaign sent a team of trainers armed with instructions for complying with the new regulations. In Florida, the campaign’s voter registration aides traveled across the state to train volunteers on a new requirement that voter registration signatures be handed in to state officials within 48 hours after they are collected. And in Ohio, Mr. Obama’s staff members have begun reaching out to let voters know about new laws that discourage precinct workers from telling voters where to go if they show up at the wrong precinct.

Many of the laws in question — including the ones in Florida and Wisconsin — are the subject of legal challenges by Democratic groups who say they are part of a partisan, Republican effort to dampen the turnout of voters, particularly members of minority groups, for Mr. Obama and his party. But senior aides to Mr. Obama said the campaign was preparing for the laws to be upheld and in force this fall — just in case.

“We have to assume that these laws will be in effect in November,” Jeremy Bird, the field director for the campaign, said in an interview. “We are not allowing laws that are challenging and put in our way to stop us from doing what we need to do.”

I imagine that the different calculation comes down to a question of time. The League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote both told me they were very eager to register voters for November’s election and will be out there doing doubletime if the courts knock down the Florida law. But these organizations have a longer-term view—the League of Women Voters has been doing this work for decades and really does pride itself on its pristine record of never having been accused of any sort of registration fraud (we can debate whether it’s really a blot on such a record to be accused of violating a ridiculous law.) But the Obama campaign, on the other hand, has a much shorter-term view: it’s all about November. And it apparently decided it can’t be waiting around for a judge in Tallahassee or wherever else to recognize how unconstitutional these laws are. As I’ve been reading about all these new restrictions, I’ve often thought back to the days I spent in 2008 reporting on Obama volunteers who were registering voters in Macon and Columbus, Georgia, back when the campaign entertained notions of trying to challenge McCain in that state. It was thankless work, reaching out to the marginalized at bus stops and public housing projects, but it was bearing fruit—these college kids and recent graduates were expanding the voter rolls in Georgia and elsewhere in dramatic fashion. So dramatic that a lot of state legislators, with the help of an unfortunately-acronymed organization, decided they had to do something about it. And now those Obama kids will be back out here, under even tougher conditions.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis