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Activists Against Voter Restrictions May Be Hindering Their Legal Case


Here's an irony of this fall's election. New voter ID laws and other restrictions are in effect.


Critics say the laws are meant to suppress voter turnout among minorities and the poor. In fact, Democrats have used this issue to motivate people to go to the polls.

MONTAGNE: And when they succeed in getting people to overcome restrictions and vote, they create evidence that the laws don't stop qualified people from voting. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Robert Dawkins has more to worry about right now than pending legal challenges to North Carolina's new voting law. He has to drive a van full of senior citizens to a Charlotte polling site for early voting. And some of them want to be back home in time to watch "The Price Is Right," which starts in an hour.


ROBERT DAWKINS: How is everybody doing?


DAWKINS: You ready to go vote?


DAWKINS: All right, all right.

FESSLER: They're definitely ready. But some of these seniors are having trouble just getting into the van. One man has an oxygen tank. Another is in a wheelchair.


DAWKINS: Who do we know that can't stand and will need to vote curbside?

FESSLER: Curbside voting is allowed here for those with disabilities. And Dawkins wants to make things as easy as possible for these voters. He's with Democracy North Carolina, a group fighting the state's new law which, among other things, eliminated a week of early voting. Dawkins has already taken dozens of the seniors to the polls.

DAWKINS: And our goal is to surpass 2010's numbers, which was 65,000 voters. And right now, we're at 38. I'm thinking we're going to surpass it.

FESSLER: But he also thinks they'd have even more early voters if there were more days to vote. But for those who support the new restrictions, the what-ifs don't matter as much as what's already happened in states with similar rules. Hans von Spakovsky of The Heritage Foundation was in Charlotte a day earlier, speaking at a voting rights forum sponsored by NPR.


HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: In 2012, in Georgia, with one of the strictest photo ID laws in the country, black Georgians outvoted whites as a percentage. And we have similar results in many other states.

FESSLER: It's an argument made repeatedly in court that lots of people supposedly hurt by the new voting laws, the elderly, the poor, minorities, are turning out in droves. But attorney Penda Hair says some of that turnout is the result of anger at the new restrictions. She's co-director of Advancement Project, one of the groups fighting North Carolina's law.

PENDA HAIR: Our clients are organizations that want people to vote. So they are out doing everything they can right now to help people overcome the obstacles.

FESSLER: Although, she knows their success could be used against them in court. So they also have lawyers in North Carolina and elsewhere collecting evidence of people who aren't necessarily prevented from voting, but who face difficult hurdles.

HAIR: And we will try to present the truth, which is that whatever the results show, our clients had to work so much harder because of these laws. And if they are somewhat successful, they could have been more successful if the laws weren't in effect.


DAWKINS: I'm going to go grab the precinct judge while you all are - fill out that sign-in sheet.

FESSLER: For the eight seniors in Robert Dawkins van, though, things go pretty smoothly. A precinct official first comes out to the van to explain that starting in 2016, every voter has to show a government-issued photo ID.


UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Anybody want to see the chart? Everybody pretty sure they got one of those, driver's license, passport?


UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: OK. That's out of the way.

FESSLER: Then, it's down to business. Voting curbside isn't hard, but it does take a lot of paperwork and time.


UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: All right. Thank you for voting with us today, and I'm sorry you're going to miss the beginning of Drew Carey's "The Price Is Right." It is almost 11 o'clock right now.

FESSLER: That's all right, says one of the seniors. At least they got to vote. Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.