A voting rights session at the Democratic National Convention had just ended when Khari Johnson, a high school student from Jackson, Miss., emerged from the room with a look of seriousness.
Johnson had heard a lot about threats to the right to vote and that's what drew him to the panel discussion that featured some voting-rights heavyweights. "I thought because I am 17 – I will be 18 next year – that it is important and that I need to hear these things," he said.
That was before this week's release of a report by the Black Youth Project. According to the report, election turnout among young people of color, including African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, may drop by nearly 700,000 voters in states with new photo ID laws. Such a decline, the researchers said, could potentially impact presidential contests in the battleground states of Florida and Pennsylvania.
Completed by Cathy Cohen, a University of Chicago political science professor, and Jon C. Rogowski, an assistant political science professor at Washington University, the report found that turnout among young minority voters in states with new restrictive ID laws could fall below 2004 and 2008 levels. The projections include African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.
"The demobilizing effects of these new laws are likely to be greater among young people of color than for young whites," said Cohen. "We estimate that between 538,000 and 696,000 young people of color may be demobilized by photo ID laws that dilute the influence of young voters of color at the ballot box, potentially shifting outcomes in competitive races."
Over the last two years, more than two-thirds of the nation's 50 states have sought to increase restrictions on the kinds of identification that citizens must show before being allowed to vote, according to the report. As a result, nine states now have laws requiring citizens to show government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot. Eight other states enacted similar measures, but offer a limited set of alternatives for those without IDs. Only two of these laws were enacted prior to the 2008 election.
Some of the photo ID proposals have been defeated or denied. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice invoked the Voting Rights Act and refused to grant clearance to laws passed in South Carolina and Texas, and the Wisconsin law was declared unconstitutional earlier this year. Legal action is ongoing in other states, including Pennsylvania, with civil rights and social justice organizations offering strong opposition to the measures that are likely to restrict voting.
(Tennessee's new photo ID law became effective in January.)
While efforts to combat such laws must be sustained, Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, told attendees in the voting rights session that every effort must be made to comply with the laws in the interim.
Johnson, who made his way to the convention as a working journalist, had already adopted a position consistent with that approach.
"Next week, I'm supposed to be going through my neighborhood and registering people to vote...just me and a couple of my friends," he said.
Amongst his peers, Johnson said he hears considerable talk about voting and voting rights. He notes, however, that he's on the debate team and – along with his associates – has done a lot of research and is pretty well versed.
Why does he have such an interest when many other young people do not?
"Coming of age, I guess, " he said.
Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore Sr., president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), Inc., also attended the voting rights session. Asked about youth and voting, the Virginia-rooted Baltimore said the PNBC has the issue keenly within its sights, devoting much of its voter registration and education activity toward young people.
"We've had voter education, voter registration going on out of all of our regionals and our annual session that we just had in Memphis," said Baltimore. "Each session we've had training, workshops going on. And we're partnering with other organizations."
Are young people actually part of the process?
"Yes," said Baltimore. "Very much so and they are reaching their peers at the college level."
In the DNC workshop, one of the panelists said if there is not an effective counter to some of the efforts underway relative to voter id, there could soon be a generation of young people who really don't know how to be citizens.
"Startling, but it's a fact," said Baltimore.
"I had to talk about voting in one of our faith councils here (at the DNC) earlier. I am concerned about the fact that we don't have enough young people, pastors, engaged in the political process. We are going to have to change that, if we want to continue the democratic process."
Part of the problem, said Baltimore, has to do with what is not being taught in schools.
"When I came along, that was being taught, the necessity of the vote," he said. "But no longer is that taught."
(The Black Youth Project report can be downloaded at: http://bit.ly/Pj9gb2.)