President Barack Obama said moves by Republicans at the state level to enact stricter voter- identification laws are an affront to the ideal that all Americans have an equal stake in their government.
The restrictions are being put in place for partisan reasons and being justified with “bogus arguments about voter fraud,” Obama told an audience at the National Action Network conference today in New York.
“Every citizen doesn’t just have a right to vote, they have a responsibility to vote,” he said at the conference organized by civil rights activist Al Sharpton. “I’m not going to let attacks on these rights go unchallenged.”
The National Action Network venue allowed Obama to extend the arc of a narrative he began to weave yesterday in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act at the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas.
The stakes are high for Obama: With Republicans expected to retain their majority in the House and contend for control of the Senate, November’s midterm election promises to set the boundaries of what he can accomplish in the final two years of his presidency.
Black and Hispanic voters, typically strong constituencies for Democratic candidates, are less likely to vote in midterm elections than their white counterparts, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center. In 2010, only 31 percent of eligible Hispanic voters went to the polls, compared with 44 percent of blacks and 48.6 percent of whites.
“We’ve got to be vigilant to secure the gains we’ve made but also to make more gains in the future,” Obama said. “That’s the meaning of these last 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed.”
Obama said the fight for voting rights won’t have meaning unless people show up at the polls in November. “The biggest problem we have is people giving up their own power,” he said.
Sharpton, Attorney General Eric Holder, and others have said the state-level voter-identification laws create an impediment to voting that is reminiscent of the poll taxes outlawed in federal elections by the 24th Amendment.
Obama said it’s a “sign of weakness” of the Republican Party that it is attempting to keep people from voting rather than trying to expand the number of those who cast ballots.
Sharpton, who hosts a daily television show on MSNBC, has become Obama’s go-to civil rights activist. They have worked together on a variety of issues, including Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. Earlier this year, Obama noted that Sharpton and Fox News host Bill O’Reilly were both involved in the program.
“If I can persuade Sharpton and O’Reilly to be in the same meeting, then it means that there are people of good faith who want to get stuff done, even if we don’t agree on everything, and that’s our focus,” the president said in February.
Sharpton has been a valuable ally for Obama because he gives the president unvarnished advice, follows through, and can work on issues from outside government, according to an administration official, who asked for anonymity to talk about private discussions.
Angela Rye, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus who attended the conference, said there’s another reason for Obama, 52, to be closer to Sharpton, 59, than he is to the generation of leaders that fought for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“They’re of the same era,” she said. Rye also credited Sharpton with using his program to make sure his viewers “know the truth about what’s happening” in terms of opposition to Obama’s agenda.
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