ORLANDO, Fla. â€” A.F.L.-C.I.O. officials on Wednesday denounced the voter identification laws enacted in a dozen states and vowed to mount their biggest voter registration and protection efforts ever to counter these laws, which they said could disenfranchise millions of voters.
Union leaders, gathered here for their annual winter meeting, held a news conference to attack the laws, saying that Republican governors and Republican-dominated legislatures had enacted them to make voting harder for numerous Democratic-leaning groups, including students, minorities, elderly and the poor.
â€œAlthough theyâ€™re called voter ID laws, they are in fact voter suppression laws,â€ said Arlene Holt Baker, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.â€™s executive vice president. â€œIf you are able to suppress the voice and vote of these groups of people, you have in fact been able to destroy democracy.â€
At a news conference Wednesday, the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a federation of 57 unions, announced its â€œ2012 Voter Protection Program,â€ a far-reaching effort that would include educating voters about their rights, filing lawsuits against some of these laws and training poll monitors. The federationâ€™s leaders said they would work closely with other groups, including the N.A.A.C.P. and National Council of La Raza, to maximize voter turnout and provide whatever help is needed to enable elderly, disabled and poor Americans to get voter IDâ€™s. Union leaders talked about the difficulties that Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year-old Chattanooga woman who has voted in virtually every election since the 1940s, suddenly faced in getting a voter ID.
After Republicans captured the governorâ€™s mansions and legislatures in Ohio, Wisconsin and several other states, many enacted voter ID laws and related measures to combat what Republican leaders said was widespread voter fraud.
But union leaders here vigorously denied that a serious fraud problem exists, arguing that Republicans had greatly exaggerated as an excuse to disenfranchise Democratic voters. Julie Greene, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.â€™s deputy political director, pointed to a study by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush that uncovered just 86 cases of voter fraud nationwide.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School has said the laws would make it significantly harder for 5 million Americans to cast their ballots. On Monday, the Justice Department blocked Texasâ€™s new voter ID law, concluding that it would disproportionately and discriminatorily keep many Hispanics from voting.
In addition to the voter ID requirement, some of the new state laws would cut back on early voting and impose restrictions on voter registration drives â€” like a Florida law that imposes heavy fines on people who register voters but fail to turn the cards into voting officials within 48 hours.
Labor leaders said they planned in coming months to register 400,000 union members, union retirees and members of union households.
â€œWeâ€™re going to play offense here, not just defense,â€ said Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America. â€œOn voter registration, weâ€™re committed to stepping it up like never before. If that means in Florida, we go to jail in registering people, then we go to jail.â€
The League of Women Voters has suspended its voter registration efforts in Florida, with the groupâ€™s leaders blaming what they said were the lawâ€™s red tape and onerous fines.
Michael Podhorzer, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.â€™s political director, said labor unions would also keep an eye on what he called â€œinvisible voter suppression.â€ He said labor officials would investigate whenever state officials purge voter rolls, as happened in Florida before the 2000 elections.
Mr. Podhorzer said union officials were already looking into Nevadaâ€™s recent decision to put 60,000 voters on â€œinactive status.â€ He also voiced concern that some states were putting â€œearly votingâ€ places in upscale malls and planning to allocate voting booths according to the 2010 elections, when Republican turnout was strong, rather than the 2008 elections, when Democratic turnout was robust, with unusually large turnout among heavy minority and student populations.
With the labor federation backing President Obamaâ€™s re-election and fearing a close race this November, Mr. Podhorzer said, â€œThe A.F.L.-C.I.O. has always taken voter protection seriously, but I think itâ€™s fair to say that we are taking it seriously by several orders of magnitude more this cycle.â€