President Obama, on the 50th anniversary of Voting Rights Act, renewed a call for new, broader legislation and urged people to exercise their hard-won voting rights instead of staying home on election days.
Obama said that in the half-century since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act it has become impossible to hear anyone defend the idea of discrimination against certain voters. “That’s huge progress,” he said, “a normative shift in how we think about our democracy.”
But he said that initiatives in state legislatures to require drivers licenses and other forms of photo identification and to make it harder to vote early were having the same discriminating effect. He said no matter how reasonable such rules may sound, they all discriminated against the poor, elderly and working-class voters who often work odd shifts or travel by bus or are single parents. Voting rights activists say that 15 states with 162 electoral votes will have new voting restrictions in 2016.
“So, in theory everybody is in favor of the right to vote,” Obama said. “In practice, we have state legislatures that are deliberately trying to make it harder for people to vote.”
In response, Obama said, Congress should pass an updated Voting Rights Act that would address these new efforts that impede voting rights.
The president was introduced by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who marched across the bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 and was arrested several times in the quest for equal rights for African Americans.
Obama also noted, however, that African Americans and others should exercise their voting rights in larger numbers. “This isn’t always a popular thing to say in front of progressive groups,” he said, but “far more people disenfranchise themselves than any law does by not participating, by not getting involved.”
Obama proposed making Sept. 22 National Voter Registration Day. “We’re going to try to get everybody to register to vote,” he said. “We’re probably not going to get everybody, but we’re going to try.”
“There are people of goodwill on both sides of the aisle who are willing to do it, but it keeps slipping as a priority,” Obama said. “This has to be a priority. If this isn’t working, nothing’s working.”
The Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the act two years ago, ruling that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination are no longer required to have voting changes preapproved by the Justice Department.
Obama discussed the landmark voting law at a national teleconference in the afternoon with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and voting rights advocates.
In a civil rights speech in Selma, Ala., in March, Obama called the Voting Rights Act “one of the crowning achievements of our democracy.” But he said the law “stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.”