US President Barack Obama said the Republican Party is threatening voting rights in the US more than at any point since the passage of a historic 1965 law expanding rights at the ballot box to millions of black Americans and other minorities.
Obama’s critique of Republicans on Friday came as he seeks to mobilize voters ahead of the November congressional elections, when Democratic control of the Senate is at stake, as is the president’s already limited ability to push his agenda through US Congress.
Many in Obama’s party fear state voting requirements and early balloting restrictions will curb turnout that is critical to Democratic hopes of prevailing.
“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 told a crowd of about 1,600 people at civil rights activist Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference, held in a New York hotel ballroom.
It was the second day in a row that the US’ first black president has delivered a speech about race, an issue that has not often been at the forefront of his agenda.
Obama has faced criticism from some African-Americans for doing too little to help minorities, but he has focused more acutely on inequality in his second term.
For the remainder of the year, no political issue stands out more prominently for Democrats than their ability to motivate voters to turn out at the polls in the November midterm elections.
A Republican takeover of the Senate would crush Obama’s already limited ability to push his agenda through Congress.
The Republicans are virtually certain to keep their majority in the US House of Representatives, but the fight for the Senate is expected to be tight.
Turnout by Democrats has been traditionally weak in elections when the White House is not at stake.
That, coupled with efforts in some states to limit early voting and to enact voter identification requirements, has prompted Obama and his party to raise alarms and step up their get-out-the-vote efforts.
The president vowed that he would not let the attacks on voting rights go unchallenged, but he offered no new announcements of specific actions his administration planned to take.
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.
Overall 34 states have passed laws requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls.
The president pinned efforts to curb access to the ballot box directly on the Republicans, 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 long argued that identification requirements and other voting controls are reasonable measures designed to safeguard the balloting process, not to suppress voter turnout.
Democrats say photo identification requirements especially affect minority or low-income voters who may not drive and thus would not have an official government ID.