October 05, 2012

Voter-Rights Groups Get a Lift From Wealthy Donors

A billionaire businessman is helping charities that protect voter rights raise money just ahead of  their busy Election Day efforts.

William Louis-Dreyfus said in an advertisement in the online and print editions of Tuesday's New York Times that he would provide $1-million to help charities that are trying to challenge new state laws that limit access to the polls for those who lack identification.

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, who amassed a fortune estimated at more than $3-billion in the global commodities business, called on other wealthy people to join him in the effort and directed donors to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Mr. Louis-Dreyfus, a supporter of President Obama and other Democratic candidates, says he became concerned after hearing news reports that the laws might restrict voting among students, minorities, and people with disabilities—groups that tend to vote Democratic.

“It struck me that there was an unexplainable inattention in the country over what for me can only be interpreted as a direct attack on our democracy,” Mr. Louis-Dreyfus said in an interview.

At least 16 states have passed restrictive laws that require people to present some form of identification to vote, according to the Brennan center. Supporters of the laws say they are trying to eliminate fraud from the electoral process. But Democrats say Republicans are pushing the measures with the intention of reducing the number of Democratic voters.

Many of the restrictive laws have been blocked by state judges or the Justice Department. On the same day that Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s ad appeared in the Times, a Pennsylvania judge blocked a key component of a new state law that would have required photographic identification to vote in the November elections.

A year ago, the Brennan Center estimated that as many as 5 million people might be affected by the new laws, but that number has probably dropped significantly thanks to court rulings, says Michael Waldman, the center’s executive director

“There are numerous fights that will continue between now and the election to make sure that everyone who is eligible to vote can vote,” Mr. Waldman says.

The Brennan Center, which is based at New York University’s School of Law, posted Mr. Louis-Dreyfus’s letter on its Web site, just above a link that says “Donate Now.” As of midday Thursday, the Brennan Center had raised roughly $27,000 from 200 people who called or visited its Web site after reading the letter.

The Brennan Center will use the funds to help provide legal representation to voters and voter-registration groups seeking to roll back the restrictive state laws. The organization is also pushing an effort to modernize the voter-registration system, an effort that it says might bring as many as 50 million additional people into the voting process.

“A lot of the voter-suppression tactics that exist wouldn’t be as effective if we had an upgraded voter-registration system,” says Wendy R. Weiser, a deputy director at the Brennan Center.

Concern about voter rights is much on the minds of other wealthy donors, too. The Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, in San Francisco, this week announced it would provide $125,000 each to four groups working to protect voter rights. The charities are the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Common Cause Education Fund, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Project Vote.