Star panelists who gathered at Harlem’s Apollo Theater on Monday night for a town hall style meeting called 10 states’ ongoing efforts to enact voter ID laws a “state of emergency.”

“Of course we need ID, but why can’t we vote with the same ID we’ve been using?” MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton asked. “Why all of a sudden do we need a new ID? There’s been no fraud. Black folks are being targeted.” The panelists agreed that the proposed state voter ID laws would disproportionately affect minorities, youth, elderly and low-income people. Sharpton was joined onstage by author and activist Michael Eric Dyson among others. Dyson added, “How come the system wasn’t recognized as ‘out of order’ before the big Black man got in the big White House?”

The standing-room only panel was part of a videotaped program and BET initiative called “Vote Like Your Life Depends On It” which hopes to increase voter participation and advocacy and to encourage African Americans to come to the polls in record numbers like they did for 2008’s presidential election. “We are talking about 2-3 seats on the Supreme Court,” Sharpton said. “This isn’t just about the next four years but the next 100 years.  ‘08 was historic, but ’12 is personal.”

The Apollo audience enthusiastically shouted their approval with “that’s rights” and loud claps, throughout the program, waving placards bearing Obama’s logo and the words: FIRED UP

Jonathan Hicks, senior national correspondent for BET and a former New York Times reporter, said that the “assault” on voters has historical precedent. “Anytime you see a surge in voter participation like we did in 2008, you have backlash.” Hicks mentioned that similar restrictions were passed after Reconstruction and in certain Southern states after the Voting Rights Act. “We had more people participating in the election than ever before in 2008,” Hicks said, “and this is just a natural consequence of that.”

Other panelists included New York Amsterdam News publisher Elinor Tatum, political analyst Keli Goff, James Braxton Peterson, associate professor of English at Lehigh University, and Atty. Judith Browne Dianis of the voter advocacy group Advancement Project.

Goff suggested the crowd arrive at the polls with five other people, and told them that if anyone gives them a problem at the polls to say: “If you try to send me home, I’m calling Reverend Sharpton.” 

“The courts may not go our own way,” Sharpton added. “So we have to decide what we’re going to do if these Voter ID laws go through.”

Voting rights advocates claimed a victory on Tuesday when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that a lower court must determine if the state can provide enough voter IDs in time for Election Day.

“These ID laws are very restrictive,” Dianis said. “It’s not just about the photo ID. It has to be a state-issued photo ID with an expiration date on it and your signature and your current address. Many of us move. It was surgically crafted to make sure they hit us, they hit Latinos, and they hit young voters. For example, in Pennsylvania, you have to have an expiration date on your ID, but 80% of colleges and universities in Pennsylvania don’t have an expiration date on their ID.” Dianis also pointed out that 78% of Black men aged 18-24 in Wisconsin do not have state-issued ID.

James Braxton Peterson encouraged the audience to continue to engage in political action. “The Tea Party has an agenda,” Peterson said. “The 1% has an agenda, the gay community has an agenda, the Latino community has an agenda. It is OK for black folk to have an agenda.”

The panel, which was moderated by BET’s T. J. Holmes, unanimously endorsed Obama in the upcoming election. “I’m not telling you who to vote for,” said Debra Lee, CEO of BET, at the beginning of the program, “but I hope we re-elect Obama.”

And while the panel acknowledged certain disappointments during Obama’s presidency, like the sluggish economy, Michael Eric Dyson called the upcoming election a “Bobby Womack” moment and quoted a Bobby Womack song: “If you think you’re lonely now, wait until tonight”–– roughly translated: If you think things are bad now, they’ll be worse if Romney gets into office. Dyson went on to say about President Obama  “We identify with him even if he doesn’t specifically articulate our viewpoint all the time because he’s a brother like us, in a serious situation, trying to do the best he can.”

By Makkada B. Selah

Photos by Adria Diane Hughes, Jet Magazine