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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The head of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group on Monday condemned state laws requiring photo identification of voters as an attempt to disenfranchise minorities through some "of the last existing legal pillars of Jim Crow."
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said a wave of newly enacted photo-ID requirements stemmed from what he saw as "the worst and most racist elements" in conservative Tea Party groups that have immersed themselves in state politics since the 2010 elections.
He compared photo ID laws to poll taxes and other past restrictions -- since struck down by the courts -- designed to keep blacks from voting in the segregated Deep South. And he said the latest measures were part of a racial backlash against the 2008 election of President Barack Obama.
"Our voting rights are under attack because a few years ago, we had a great breakthrough in this country," Jealous said in a speech at the 102nd annual NAACP convention, held in Los Angeles. "We broke the color line at the White House."
He said the NAACP would mount education campaigns aimed at preventing minorities and the poor from being disenfranchised.
Supporters of photo ID laws, backed mainly by Republican legislators and governors, say they are aimed at thwarting election fraud and are no more discriminatory than requiring IDs for cashing a check or making credit-card purchases.
Jealous' comments were dismissed as preposterous by Hans von Spakovsky, a former Federal Election Commission member and a senior legal fellow for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, who said they showed a "complete ignorance of the voting process."
Von Spakovsky said lawsuits challenging voter ID laws in Indiana and Georgia were thrown out in both cases because "the plaintiffs could not produce a single individual" who was kept from voting by those laws.
Voter turnout by minorities actually increased in those two states since voter ID requirements were imposed, he added.
"Jim Crow laws weren't just about voting. They were about impeding public accommodations and public transportation. Yet, you cannot check into a hotel anywhere in America without a photo ID. You cannot get on any airplane without a photo ID, and I don't hear the NAACP claiming those requirements are somehow Jim Crow," Von Spakovsky said.
Fourteen states require voters to present a government-issued photo identification at the polls according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Liberals and their Democratic allies have said such measures would tend to inhibit voter turnout among minorities, the poor, students and the elderly -- all viewed as generally more friendly to Democrats than Republicans.
Democratic governors in at least five states -- North Carolina, Montana, Missouri, Minnesota and New Hampshire -- have vetoed voter identification bills this year.
About 11 percent of American adults lack an official photo ID, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Von Spakovsky criticized that study, saying it included people who were not registered to vote.
Jealous said identification requirements in Wisconsin would effectively disqualify about half of otherwise eligible black and Latino voters because they lacked valid state-issued IDs.
"Simply put, people who are too poor to own a car don't tend to have a driver's license," he said, adding an Arizona law requiring photo IDs to be attached to voter registration applications had eliminated 40,000 voters from the rolls.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston