By Amanda Becker
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. voters in 14 states are navigating new laws that critics say make it harder for lower-income and minority voters, who typically back Democrats, to cast ballots in the midterm elections.
Advocacy groups across the country are gearing up to help voters contend with cutbacks in early voting and new state requirements for voter identification, which the mostly Republican sponsors say are necessary to combat voter fraud.
Democrats and civil rights groups counter there is scant evidence of fraud, and say the measures are a Republican effort to depress turnout by Democratic-leaning demographic groups such as the young, poor and minorities.
The laws are the latest in a wave of voting restrictions instituted by Republican-controlled legislatures and Republican governors since the party's big election gains in 2010.
Many are being used for the first time in a national election on Tuesday, after the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2013 invalidated a section of the Voting Rights Act that required areas with a history of racial discrimination, mainly in the U.S. South, to get federal approval for changes to voting laws.
Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia have more stringent voter identification laws this year. Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin have shortened early-voting periods ahead of Election Day on Nov. 4. Indiana and Kansas also have new laws in place related to ballot challenges and proof of citizenship.
In North Carolina, the reduction in early voting hours and the elimination of same-day voter registration that is popular with minority voters could impact Democratic Senator Kay Hagan's re-election fight with Republican Thom Tillis, a key piece in the Republican push for a Senate majority.
High-profile governor's races in Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas, and thousands of down-ballot races, also could be influenced by more restrictive election laws.
The Supreme Court issued a flurry of rulings on voting laws earlier this month, permitting Texas to enforce its strict photo ID voter law in the midterm elections while the state appeals trial court ruling that it is discriminatory. But in a separate decision, the high court blocked Wisconsin from implementing a 2011 law requiring voters to show a photo ID that advocates said could have disenfranchised more than 300,000 residents.
In all, 31 states have some form of voter identification law in effect for next week, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, including seven with strict requirements for photo IDs.
In Texas, the law's opponents have criticized the types of photo identification that will be accepted: a concealed handgun license is valid, a university ID is not. "This is partisan politics at its worst," NAACP President Cornell Brooks said.
A coalition of voting and civil rights advocacy groups with more than 100 participating partners has launched a toll-free hotline to provide coast-to-coast voting advice, and state groups on the ground are reaching out to inform potential voters on the requirements.
The Texas Organizing Project's Drive for Democracy program has targeted the state's infrequent voters, who tend to be minorities who stay home when there is no presidential race or who do not know their voting rights.
San Antonio resident Agustin Villegas, 18, said he would not have voted if Democratic State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer had not shown up at his door to offer him a ride.
"I'm not very political," he said.
(Reporting By Amanda Becker in Washington, Marti Ann Maguire in Raleigh and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio.; Editing by John Whitesides and Frances Kerry)