WASHINGTON — Minority voters have long had problems simply exercising their right to vote in certain parts of the country — and minority lawmakers fear the situation will become worse in 2012.
Their worries are heightened by new laws in 13 states that they say will restrict access to the ballot box. Some of the changes would require voters to show government-approved identification, restrict voter registration drives by third-party groups, curtail early voting, do away with same-day registration, and reverse rules allowing convicted felons who've served their time the right to vote.
In addition to the states that have passed such laws, 24 other states are weighing similar measures, according to New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.
Proponents of the measures say they are needed to protect the integrity of the vote, prevent illegal immigrants from casting ballots, and clamp down on voter fraud, although several studies indicate that voter fraud is negligible.
Never miss a local story.
Civil rights groups, voting experts and some lawmakers say the new laws have echoes of poll taxes and literacy tests — devices that for generations blocked black voters from easily going to the polls.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters last week that the new voting laws are "perverse policies" designed to "subvert Americans' basic right to vote."
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said asking voters to produce identification isn't unreasonable.
"And when it comes to voting, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say you have to prove that you are who you say you are, and we'll find accommodating ways to get there," Graham said at the hearing. "So I think sanctifying the voting process in a way that makes sense, to make sure that we're electing people based on registered voters, is a goal that we should all be concerned about, want to achieve."
Fearing that the new laws are thinly veiled efforts to intimidate voters from their core constituencies, Democratic lawmakers are ramping up efforts to combat them. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are expected to express their concerns to Attorney General Eric Holder at a meeting Wednesday.
A study by the Brennan Center earlier this month 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.
The study found that more than 21 million Americans don't possess government-issued photo identification. More than 3.2 million people alone in South Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin don't have state-issued identification that's now required to vote in those states.
Some 25 percent of African-Americans nationwide do not have the proper documentation to meet ID requirements, according to Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau.
States that have adopted new voting 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.
"'Voter ID is making it harder to get registered," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "You can't get a birth certificate in the South in many instances. ... This is a way of making it difficult to vote."
Some analysts believe that President Barack Obama's opponents are enacting laws designed to make it more difficult for his voters to reach the polls. Obama's winning coalition in 2008 included enthusiastic turnout by young and minority voters who may be less likely to have drivers' licenses or other photo ID, and who take advantage of early voting or same-day registration.
"I'm pretty sure this is linked," said Blair Kelley, associate professor of history at North Carolina State University.
But Hans von Spakovsky, a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, argued in an interview that the "whole idea they have in their mind this will depress the turnout of Democratic voters has been proven to be untrue in the courtroom and the polling place."
"No one can enter most federal buildings to exercise the First Amendment right to petition the government without a photo ID," von Spakovsky testified last month before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.
Civil rights activists and Democratic lawmakers have struggled to combat the changes. Shelton of the NAACP said the fight is more difficult because the battleground is in individual states as opposed to Washington.
"This is one of those issues that's spread out over the country," he said. "We're at a disadvantage because of the makeup of (Republican-controlled) state legislatures. We fight it with education."
In Washington, members of the black caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the House Democratic leadership recently began meetings to develop a strategy to address the issue.
The black caucus is weighing whether to embark on a state-by-state tour — similar to a jobs fair and town hall tour the group organized in August — to educate and help facilitate voter registration next year.
MORE FROM McCLATCHY: