NEW YORK — In an unsparing critique of Republicans, President Barack Obama on Friday accused the GOP of using voting restrictions to keep voters from the polls and of jeopardizing 50 years of expanded ballot box access for millions of black Americans and other minorities.
“The stark, simple truth is this: The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” Obama said in a fiery speech at civil rights activist and television talk host Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference.
Obama waded into the acrid debate over voting access in an election year where control of the Senate, now in the hands of Democrats, is at stake, as is Obama’s already limited ability to push his agenda through Congress.
Republicans say the voting measures guard against voter fraud, but Democrats say they erode the landmark 1965 law that helped pave Obama’s path in politics.
“Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote,” he said, relating anecdotes of voters turned away because they didn’t have the right identification or because they needed a passport or birth certificate to register.
“About 60 percent of Americans don’t have a passport,” he said. “Just because you can’t have the money to travel abroad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to vote here at home.”
Obama’s speech to a crowd of about 1,600 in a New York hotel ballroom came a day after he marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, where he praised President Lyndon Johnson’s understanding of presidential power and its use to create new opportunities for millions of Americans.
The president pinned efforts to curb access to the ballot box directly on the GOP, declaring that the effort “has not been led by both parties. It’s been led by the Republican Party.” Mocking the Republicans, he said, “What kind of political platform is that? Why would you make that a part of your agenda, preventing people from voting?”
Republicans have argued that they voter laws seek to safeguard the voting process and are not an attempt to limit Democratic turnout.
A spokeswoman for Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a state whose voting laws are being challenged by the Obama administration, said the Supreme Court has ruled that voter identification laws are constitutional.
“Protecting the integrity of the voting process is something that benefits everyone, partisan politics do not,” the spokeswoman, Megan Mitchell, said.
For Democrats this year, no political issue stands out more prominently than their ability to motivate voters to turn out at the polls in November. But traditionally weak midterm turnout by Democrats coupled with efforts in some states to limit early voting and to enact voter identification requirements have prompted the president and his party to raise alarms and step up their get-out-the-vote efforts.
“I want to be clear: I am not against reasonable attempts to secure the ballot. We understand that. There has to be rules in place,” Obama said. “But I am against requiring an ID that millions of Americans don’t have.”
Just last year, seven states passed voter restrictions, ranging from reductions in early voting periods to identification requirements, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. North Carolina alone adopted a photo ID requirement, eliminated registrations on Election Day and reduced the number of early voting days.
The North Carolina steps, which take effect in the 2016 election, came after the Supreme Court last June threw out the crucial section of the Voting Rights Act that required that all or parts of 15 states with a history of discrimination in voting, mainly in the South, get federal approval before changing their election laws.
Bipartisan legislation proposed in the House and Senate would attempt to address the constitutional concerns raised by the Supreme Court. But sponsors such as Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., are still trying to line up enough support for the proposals.
The fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act has brought renewed attention to issues of race and the accomplishments of the civil rights movement. A CBS News poll released Wednesday found that more than 3 in 4 Americans say there has been progress in getting rid of racial discrimination. But those views split racially, with whites much more likely than African-Americans to think real progress has been achieved.
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