Obama Campaign Recruiting Voting Law Watchdogs

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Just before former President Bill Clinton left the stage in Charlotte, he made sure to add voting rights protection to his list of reasons to reelect President Obama.

“If you want every American to vote and you think it's wrong to change voting procedures just to reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority and disabled voters, you should support Barack Obama,” Clinton said as he wrapped up his speech.

It's not just Clinton. In the final hours of the Democratic convention, the Obama campaign is making voting rights enforcement a key part of the closing pitch to activists before they scatter from Charlotte.

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was repeatedly jailed during voting rights protests in the 1960s south, told a crowd of assembled delegates and volunteers that he sees troubling echoes in the raft of new voter laws passed before the 2012 election.

“The right to vote is precious,” Lewis told the crowd. “I believe in my gut that there are forces on the other side in systematic deliberate way, going to steal this election before it ever takes place. And we must not let that happen on our watch.”

The Democrats’ emphasis is changing, though, as the campaign moves into the fall. Legal challenges to new, tighter voting requirements continue to move through the courts, but party leaders are focusing on the need to work around the new legal landscape.

"We can't change most of these laws now. We're beyond that,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told a morning gathering on voting access at the DNC on Thursday morning. “We want to make sure everybody knows what they need to do in order to vote. At least that.”  

DNC general counsel Bob Bauer described the Democrats’ monitoring in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida as “very, very successful.”  He said teams of local volunteers have been directly engaging with local election officials to respond to what he called “shenanigans” like efforts to change early voting calendars and purge voter lists.

“We’re not going to litigate our way through to Election Day. We have a hard deadline here in the near term,” Bauer said. “We shouldn’t have to do this, but we do and we’re going to expend the resources and we’re going to get it done.”

The campaign is aggressively recruiting poll workers, Election Day observers, and attorneys to help at the local level. A campaign worker from Florida moved through the Charlotte crowd to collect names of new attorney volunteers, and an organizer from Pennsylvania stood up during the morning session to make a direct pitch. “We need you. We need your friends!” he said. “If you’re from New York, we need you in Philly. If you’re in California, we need you in Nevada!”  

The campaign also has a website, gottavote.org, to help voters navigate different voting laws depending on their state.

Court decisions this summer have been mixed on a number of new voting laws. In Ohio, a federal judge struck down a law that would have ended early voting during the weekend before the election and is now calling the Secretary of State to appear in court to make sure he complies. In Texas, a federal district court struck down the state’s new photo ID requirement last week, finding that it would hurt minority turnout and created “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.”

But in Florida, a federal judge upheld a shortened early voting period this week, and a Pennsylvania court upheld that state’s new photo ID requirement last month.

While the focus is turning to pragmatic compliance, Obama supporters aren’t ending their protests of the tighter voting laws entirely. NAACP president Ben Jealous urged Obama supporters in Charlotte to travel to Philadelphia next week, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will consider an appeal of the photo ID ruling.

Republicans are also continuing to organize in Pennsylvania. State party chairman Rob Gleason told NBC News about the party’s efforts to place more Republicans on local election boards, because “they’ll make sure everybody shows a photo ID.”