By Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Liberal activists on Wednesday criticized new voter registration requirements in dozens of states, saying millions of people could be deterred from voting in the November presidential election - a claim their opponents disputed.
The Center for American Progress issued a report that said new barriers to voting have been enacted by conservative state legislatures with the aim of disenfranchising voters from among certain groups such as low-income voters, minorities and college students. Those constituencies have tended to favor Democrats.
"The right to vote is under attack all across our country," the group said in a report that launched the latest salvo in the growing war of racially tinged rhetoric over new voter ID requirements.
Conservative groups and Republican-led state legislatures that have proposed the new rules say they will help ensure fair voting and cut back on fraud. They vehemently disagreed with the report.
"This is clearly a campaign by the left to demonize Republicans, to play the race card and to use this as an issue to make believe that Republicans are suppressing minority voters, which is clearly not the case," said Brian Darling, senior fellow for government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Since 2011, nine states have passed strict new photo identification requirements while two dozen others have introduced legislation that would require voters to show a picture ID card to vote. Other states have passed laws that shorten an early voting period and make it tougher to register.
These changes could impact minorities in particular, the Center for American Progress report said, since as many as 25 percent of blacks do not possess a valid form of government-issued ID, compared to 11 percent on average for all races.
The new laws have led to a flurry of lawsuits across the country, and it is unclear how many will have gone into effect in time to play a role in the 2012 election.
Groups like the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School say voter fraud is extremely rare and there is no "credible evidence" suggesting a voter fraud epidemic and need for the new restrictions.
As the laws are analyzed and court cases proceed, accusations of racial bias are on the rise by both sides.
Representative James Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American in Congress, said he was more upset about the trend of toughening up the voting laws than he was when he was jailed for civil rights protests in South Carolina in the 1960s.
"I cannot remember - even (when) sitting in an Orangeburg county jail - when I had as much anxiety as I'm experiencing today," Clyburn told reporters, referring to the jail where he was detained in 1960 after protesting school segregation.
Darling called Clyburn's comments "absurd" and said claims of voter suppression were just fear-mongering by liberals.
"They have no evidence to prove this wild assertion that Republicans are suppressing minority voters," Darling said.
Though it is tough to prove numbers of people who do not show up to vote, the Brennan Center said 70 percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to win in the 2012 presidential election will now come from states with new restrictive voting laws.
Though the laws differ, some of the more strict requirements, such as in Texas, require voters to show a government-issued photo ID like a driver's license or passport.
The Brennan Center, which represents potential voters in some of the legal challenges in Florida, Texas and South Carolina, said about 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or 21 million people, do not possess a government issued photo ID.
"The laws that we are seeing are much more restrictive than any other voter ID or any other kinds of laws we've seen in the past," said Wendy Weiser, director at Brennan's Democracy Center.
DEBATE OVER IMPACT OF VOTER ID
The Obama administration said the new rules do not just target blacks but also other minorities.
The Justice Department blocked the Texas law under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, saying it could harm Hispanic voters. It cited Texas data that showed almost 11 percent of the state's growing number of Hispanic voters did not have the proper type of ID card. The outcome of the new law in Texas is still pending.
Three of the new photo ID laws - in South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee - do not allow students to use the identity cards provided by their educational institutions to vote, which is a bias against young and often more liberal voters, the Center for American Progress report said.
Republicans say the numbers of people who do not have the proper type of ID are exaggerated and proponents of the rules point to provisions in different state laws that provide free photo identification to those who need it.
In Indiana, where a 2005 photo ID law was upheld by the Supreme Court, the law did not hurt voter turnout, the general counsel of the Indiana Secretary of State's office told a Texas Senate committee last year. He said hardly any group had been found that had been disenfranchised.
Data from Georgia, which began requiring photo IDs in 2007, showed that very few citizens requested the free ID. But legal experts say poorer citizens who do not have a car will likely have a hard time getting to the proper office to obtain the ID and so will just skip voting.
Other states, like Florida, have imposed tough registration rules that have caused groups like the League of Women Voters that often hold drives to register large numbers of voters to stop trying for fear of legal reprisal. This could impact the number of Democrats who turn out to vote.
"We're going to have to really be on guard to see what impact any of these new election laws are going to have on voters," said Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. "It just seems like the voting process is going in the wrong direction ... we continue to enact laws that restrict Americans' right to go to the polls."
The Center for American Progress was founded in 2003 by John Podesta, former chief of staff to Democratic President Bill Clinton, and its head is Neera Tanden, who held positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
(Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan in Texas; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jackie Frank)