MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, we want to turn to an important issue from this country that found the international spotlight this week. Yesterday, members of the NAACP, one of this country's oldest and most prominent civil rights organizations, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council about new voter ID laws. More than 30 states now have laws requiring people to show a government-issued ID in order to vote, that according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Supporters have said these measures are necessary to combat voter fraud, but a number of civil rights groups say otherwise. Here is NAACP President Ben Jealous speaking to the council in Geneva, Switzerland.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Each of these types of laws, often framed as vote security measures, have one thing in common. They will disproportionately block members of minority groups from voting.
MARTIN: The NAACP is not the only group opposing these laws. The U.S. Justice Department, for example, has opposed some of them. But we wanted to hear more about why the NAACP decided to take this issue to the United Nations, so we're joined now by Hillary Shelton. He is the NAACP's Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy and he's with us now from Geneva.
Hillary Shelton, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HILLARY SHELTON: Oh, it's great to be with you.
MARTIN: Now, I think most people think of the UN Human Rights Council as taking up some issues like child trafficking, sex trafficking and war crimes. Why did you think this was the appropriate body to present your concerns about these voter ID laws?
SHELTON: Well, the council has always viewed opportunities and access to the government, that is, equal protection under law and the opportunity to vote and be able to involve yourself in the process and decisions of government. So they've always looked at the issues of how these kind of laws affect racial and ethnic minorities and their ability to prevent us from being able to fully participate in the democratic process.
MARTIN: You know, as we mentioned, the NAACP is not the only group that opposes these laws and believes that these laws are - not only will have a disproportionate impact on minority voting, that, in some cases, they are intended to have that effect.
But, earlier this week, we spoke with former Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, who is also African-American, and this is what he had to say about this.
ARTUR DAVIS: We're a society that operates on people presenting ID and saying and verifying they're who they say they are. That's a function of how we enter many buildings. It's a function of how we cash checks, a function of how we exercise our ability to get a book from the library.
MARTIN: I think his argument is that this is such a common requirement to do so many things that - how could it possibly be as discriminatory and as impactful as you say it is? And what do you say to that?
SHELTON: Well, in most of the cases that we're talking about, when you think about going to cash a check, going to catch an airplane or things along those lines, number one, there are many, many other options you can utilize to be able to do it. As a matter of fact, if anyone's really interested in the other options for even being able to board an airplane, you can go on the website, the federal government agencies, the FAA, and take a look at many of the different types of identification or even what happens if you don't have identification to be able to get on that plane, anyway. So, indeed, I think they missed the point there.
But the bottom line is that voting is different from all of those things. All those issues are pretty much things that we'd like to be able to do. They are not fundamental rights. The right to vote is something that should not be obscured by anything. If people are eligible, we know we have a very tragic history of contrived blockages to the polling places that go way back, especially for African-Americans.
For us to be able to move, in this day and age, to put in place obstacles that would prevent 25 percent of eligible African-Americans from being able to cast that vote and exercise that franchise, it is very disturbing.
MARTIN: Where do you get that figure from?
SHELTON: That's a figure that was given to us by the Brennan Center. The Brennan Center is...
MARTIN: And you think that's throughout the country or you think in specific states or one specific state in particular?
SHELTON: It's throughout the country. What they did is looked at the average of all African-Americans that are of voting age and looked at those that actually had the requisite photo identification and came up with that 25 percent figure.
MARTIN: We're talking about the NAACP's testimony before the UN Human Rights Council against new voter ID laws in the United States. I'm speaking with Hillary Shelton, Washington bureau director of the civil rights organization, the NAACP. He's with us from Geneva, Switzerland. Officials addressed that body yesterday.
What exactly do you want the council to do?
SHELTON: Number one is we do want the council to come in and observe, to see what's going on in the United States and have that outside look in, that fresh perspective on this disenfranchising processes, to do a report that will be shared with the United States so we could utilize it in a very informed way. But also, share that information with all of the countries I mentioned before, countries that are, again, struggling with their ability to make sure they are democratized in an ever diverse world.
MARTIN: What kind of reception do you think you got?
SHELTON: They were very, very interested. We've not only spoken directly to the entire council, but various subsets of the council, as well, including the U.S. delegation, sharing with them what our intentions are, what our needs are. And the reception has been just fabulous.
MARTIN: And, given that it isn't clear, exactly, what role the UN can play, other than provide an additional set of eyes, kind of a moral voice, if you will, what other steps is the NAACP planning to take to ensure that people who do have the right to vote are able to exercise that franchise? Are there other steps that you're taking?
SHELTON: Absolutely. The first approach is, of course, to try to repeal these measures as quickly as possible, but secondly, we'll be working to make sure that, in those states that we cannot repeal, that we make sure that every eligible American has whatever they need, whatever papers, whatever photo identifications or anything else, to be able to vote.
We've been raising money at the local level to actually help poor people pay for these photo IDs and so forth. We're going to have to raise money to help make sure people can pay their way to get the proper ID that they need to give their voter information and go to the polls and vote.
MARTIN: I know that we're talking about voter ID laws specifically here, but are there any other practices related to voting that you're raising before the council?
SHELTON: Absolutely. We're also looking at other strategies and practices that are being utilized now that we believe are going to be extremely disenfranchising, as well. For instance, we have a number of states now that have actually shortened early voting. We know and we've experienced in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, lines at the polls, particularly in racial and ethnic minority communities in Ohio and Florida and other places, that ended up taking many Americans four to even eight hours, in some cases, to be able to cast their vote. So we moved to extend the amount of time people had to come to the polls and vote and what we saw was an increase in voter participation.
Now, we have, under the guise of states that are having to cut budgets, shortening those early voting practices, as well as eliminating Sunday voting. What that means now is that we're expecting longer lines again and again. This is something that more disproportionately affects those Americans that have to punch a clock, which are more of the poor Americans - of course, African-Americans are very predominant within that grouping - from being able to get to the polls, cast their vote and get out in time to get to work so they can get paid.
So that raises a problem, but also, we looked at things like Sunday voting. We had, in Florida, for instance, a program called All Souls to the Polls. Churches there were organized to have their Sunday morning services, and then after service, they'd line everyone up and march them to the polls to cast their vote and exercise the franchise. Thirty-one percent of all Sunday voters in the state of Florida were African-American. Indeed, this creates some obstacles, as well.
Finally, this issue of the re-enfranchisement of felony offenders are, in the case of Florida, again the disenfranchise of felony offenders. We know that, disproportionately, African-Americans find themselves having felony offenses on their record and, for some reason, at the state level, we have so many states - as a matter of fact, those that have the heaviest African-American population - moving to make it more difficult to become re-enfranchised. So it raises major concerns for us.
MARTIN: Hillary Shelton is the Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy for the NAACP. That's one of this country's oldest and most prominent civil rights organizations. He was with us from the United Nations studios in Geneva, Switzerland.
Hillary Shelton, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SHELTON: Oh, it's more than a pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.