WASHINGTON — Two blocks from the White House, in a conference room on the fourth floor of a nondescript office building, voting rights advocates are fighting on the front line of the voting wars.
Welcome to the headquarters of Election Protection, a program run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and a multitude of civil rights organizations that seeks to combat the wave of restrictive voting laws that have swept state legislatures in the past few years.
“I was here in 2000 when the debacle happened in Florida. That really led to civil rights groups coming together and saying we have to have a paradigm shift in the way that we view elections,” Barbara R. Arnwine, President & Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law told TPM in an interview at their office, which doubles as headquarters for the Election Protection’s hotline number.
“Our normal modus operandi was to always wait until after the election and then to bring lawsuits or whatever challenges were appropriate after that time. But for the first time we realized that voter suppression was being used as a tactic to really drive down the participation of African-Americans in that instance,” she said.
“We couldn’t wait until after the election, we had to do preventative election protection, and that’s how the whole concept originated,” Arnwine said. “The landscape has shifted on us, and we had to acknowledge that we had to shift our tactics.”
The Election Protection coalition consists of about 60 groups and partnerships with countless others. One key feature: a hotline that provides Americans with “comprehensive voter information and advice on how they can make sure their vote is counted.” A new addition this year: a SmartPhone application that Election Protection hopes will create countless advocates who sign up their friends.
Calls to Election Protection’s hotline have provided plaintiffs to groups filing suit against over various changes to voting laws, including at least one plaintiff in the suit against Pennsylvania’s voter ID law.
Eric Marshall, the co-leader of Election Protection, said groups that oppose voter ID have an uphill battle, with polls indicating public support for voter ID laws.
“We have to start changing the nature of the conversation, get out the fact that these laws are like cutting off your ankle to cure the flu,” Marshall said.
“I think this is a margins game for the right,” Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote, told TPM. “They’re out there with very expensive ads, they’re playing to win, and this is just one prong of a multi-pronged strategy.”
With all of the new elections laws that are hitting his cycle, Marshall said Election Protection looks at a number of factors when deploying resources to various states.
“It’s a civil rights organization, so we care about particularly communities of color but also historically disenfranchised voters — language minorities, people with disabilities, and so on,” Marshall said. “So we tend to focus on areas with high concentrations of those voters and a history of problems. We want to make sure that we’re having the greatest impact.”
But the competitiveness of a particular race does factor into their calculations, Marshall said.
“Where there are highly-competitive elections, there’s higher turnout,” Marshall said.
“There are traditional battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania that we work in, but there are states like Georgia, California, New York that aren’t necessarily, and there are states like North Carolina that we’ve worked in historically that are now considered to be battleground states,” Marshall said, adding that the group was especially active in about 20 states.
Arnwine noted that Election Protection worked recent Republican primaries, including Florida’s primary. She said the wide variety of threats to voting rights this year has made the Election Protection coalition very strong.
“The biggest barrier I see, the biggest headache and fight that we’re going to have is pure voter education — poor voters are going to be just so confused,” Arnwine said.
“I think the interactions are the best I’ve ever seen them, because everybody feels the weight of the threat of disaster that could really be a consequence of this voter suppression effort if it is successful,” Arnwine said.
Still, they could use more funding.
“I don’t think there’s a group out there that will say we’re at our ideal budgets,” Arnwine said. “I think it’s always frustrating that the non-partisan efforts are the last funded and the least funded, and that is always annoying.”
Arnwine said she’s frustrated when Democrats ask her why the group is “wasting time” in Mississippi or Georgia by spending resources in states that aren’t in play in November.
“People think only political. Well, peoples’ rights are being abridged in those states. African-Americans are being targeted in those states,” Arnwine said. “We’re not here to elect anyone into office, we’re here to make sure every voter has an opportunity to cast a ballot and have it counted. That is our role.”
Marshall said he believes the program can be on par with their efforts in 2008. They will raise somewhere in the $2 million range to run the program and will leverage about $30 million in pro bono legal representation.
“It could be devastating for years to come, decades to come. If it succeeds, those who are promoting voter suppression will only feel more embolden — they will feel like this is the best tactic — and for those who are harmed by those tactics, they will feel ‘well, why vote.’” Arnwine said. “So a lot is at stake here.”