Voter Suppression Takes Center Stage At Annual Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference

FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2012 file photo, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia waves to delegates at the Democratic National Convention
FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2012 file photo, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia waves to delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. For decades, Southerners put a firm imprint on national politics from both sides of the aisle, holding the White House for 25 of the last 50 years and producing a legion of Capitol Hill giants throughout the 20th century. But that kind of obvious power has waned as Democrats and Republicans in the region navigate the consequences of tidal shifts in demographics, migration and party identity. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Assiah Richardson spent much of Thursday morning scrambling to get to Washington to attend this year’s Annual Legislative Conference.

The Philadelphia-based activist has faithfully attended the annual conference, hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus, for more than two decades. But this year she was more eager than ever.

Richardson, the president of the African American United Fund, works in a predominantly black community in North Philadelphia, one of Pennsylvania’s poorest neighborhoods. She is worried that Pennsylvania’s new voter identification laws, which require voters to show state-issued photo identification to cast a ballot, will disenfranchise individuals who have voted for decades and will discourage eligible voters from taking the extra steps necessary to ensure their vote is cast.

Many Pennsylvanians are unable to obtain the needed identification, which could prevent them from voting in November. Democrats have said that the laws are designed purposely to disenfranchise certain voters, while Republicans argue the laws were put in place to hinder voter fraud, which statistically happens very seldom, if at all.

Richardson's organization offered voter education forums and workshops for 12 years, realizing that the lack of turnout prior to the 2008 election was the result of poor voter education and apathy rooted in the idea that votes do not matter.

“We have a collective responsibility to bring each other up, but then it’s the individual's responsibility to act on the information, act on the resources ... provided to them. So we don’t take 'no' for an answer. You are going to vote. You never except the status quo. You never accept the labels or expectations that others have for you. If we had, we’d still be enslaved.”

Richardson’s comments echoed panelists at the "Voter ID and New Age Racism Town Hall" meeting at the conference Thursday.

The panel, moderated by Marc Lamont Hill, included political strategist Donna Brazile, activist Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) among others. The discussion was mainly an empowerment tool to equip attendees with the necessary information, tactics and talking points to combat voter suppression in all of its many forms.

“African Americans who don’t vote, should give us their color back,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), who opened up the conference.

The crowd erupted in cheers, applause and laughter.

Perhaps the most heartfelt sentiment came from Lewis, who was a victim of Jim Crow racism in the Deep South and championed those who fought against it his home state of Georgia. “I gave a little blood for the right to vote,” Lewis said, describing attacks he suffered from those bent on defeating voter empowerment efforts.

Yet not everyone on the panel agreed that voter ID laws are a response by the Republican Party to prevent another historic voter turnout by blacks and Latinos like the one in 2008.

Panelist Crystal Wright, founder of the site Conservative Black Chic, blamed the lack of identification and birth certificates on voters who did not obtain them prior to elections.

Wright spoke to The Huffington Post after the meeting about why voter ID laws are necessary.

“Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, we have not made a lot of gains as a race economically, compared to our white counterparts and I feel like it’s the politics of victimization," she said. "We’re always telling blacks, particularly the Congressional Black Caucus -- who’s suppose to be the conscience of Congress -- is constantly telling blacks, 'you're a victim, you can’t achieve compared to whites'."

"I’m not saying that every voter ID law is perfect, but why wouldn’t you want to maintain the integrity of the ballot box by making sure people are who they say they are? Voter fraud does occur. Is it widespread? I mean, what is widespread?"

The voter suppression debate is not only about voter IDs. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) initiated a directive that would end weekend voting in Ohio, a time when many blacks go to the polls. Tactics like poll taxes, ending early voting and other restrictive voter laws prompted the National Urban League to name voter suppression as the number one issue facing black America in 2012 in its annual report in February.