WASHINGTON -- The Rev. Franklyn Richardson longs for the old days, when all it took was Sunday sermons by African-American ministers to fire up their flocks to get registered and vote in local, state and federal elections.
"In the past, all we had to do was encourage people to register," said Rev. Richardson, the senior pastor of the Grace Baptist Church of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and Port St. Lucie, Fla., and the chair of the Conference of National Black Churches. "Now it's a different animal."
African-American churches, historically at the forefront of the nation's civil and voting rights efforts, are grappling this election year with how to navigate through the wave of new voting-access laws approved in many Republican-controlled states, laws that many African-Americans believe were implemented to suppress the votes of minorities and others.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and several hundred clergy leaders from the Conference of National Black Churches are scheduled to hold a summit Wednesday in Washington to discuss the new laws, their potential impact on African-American voters and how churches can educate parishioners, help them register and help get them to the polls on Election Day to prevent any significant drop-off from 2008.
"We will have attorneys there who are well-equipped to provide the guidance to the clergy members," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., the Congressional Black Caucus chair and a United Methodist pastor. Since last year, at least 15 states, including Pennsylvania, have passed a wide array of laws that they say are aimed at reducing voter fraud. Up to 38 states, including some of those 15, are weighing legislation that would require people to show government-approved photo identification or provide proof of citizenship before registering or casting ballots.
Advocates of the new laws say they're 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 over the years indicate that systemic voter fraud in this country is negligible.
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 minorities, elderly or low-income.
African-American ministers, elected officials and civil rights advocates are especially concerned about photo ID laws. The Brennan Center study found that more than 21 million Americans don't have government-approved photo identification. The NAACP estimates that about 25 percent of African-Americans nationwide don't have the proper documentation to meet some ID requirements. And, according to the Brennan Center, 15 percent of voters who earn less than $35,000 a year don't have government photo ID.
First Published May 29, 2012 12:00 AM