WASHINGTON – Half a century after the U.S. passed a law intended to give all its citizens equal access to the voting booth, President Barack Obama said that protection is at risk.
“In practice we’ve still got problems,” Obama said Thursday at a White House event he hosted with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who was a leader in the civil rights movement. “On the ground there are still too many ways in which people are discouraged from voting.”
The remarks came on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The law prohibited states from enacting policies aimed at preventing blacks from voting, including poll taxes, literacy tests and civics quizzes.
Today, the Obama administration is battling Republican-led states that have passed requirements that voters show identification at polling stations. Obama and some courts have held that the laws disenfranchise poor and minority people who are less likely to have an official ID. Republicans say the requirements protect against voter fraud.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Fifth District ruled Texas’s voter identification law violates the Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the Supreme Court threw out a portion of the 1965 law, saying enough progress had been made that it was no longer necessary.
“Fifty years since passage of the VRA, it remains clear that the struggle for the right to vote is not over,” the Congressional Black Caucus said in an emailed statement. “Today, it’s more imperative than ever that Congress pass a comprehensive legislative proposal that restores the Voting Rights Act and improves our nation’s voting system in a way that guarantees access to the ballot box and protects the fundamental right to vote for every American once and for all.”
Republicans in charge of Congress have shown no inclination to consider legislation renewing the Voting Rights Act.
“It keeps on slipping as a priority,” Obama said. “Part of the reason we’re here is to reaffirm to members of Congress this has to be a priority.”
Obama said in an article posted Thursday on the website Medium that too many Americans choose not to exercise their right to vote. Turnout in the 2014 congressional election, in which Republicans took control of the Senate and gained seats in the House, was less than 37 percent, according to the United States Elections Project, run by Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida.
“When we sit at home on Election Day, we give away our power,” Obama wrote. “There is no possible excuse for it.”
In the twilight of his presidency Obama has increasingly focused on issues of race and inequality. In March, he called for Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act in a speech in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the 50th anniversary of a civil rights march in which protesters were attacked and beaten by police.
“The Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor,” Obama said in the Selma speech. “How can this be?”
The law, he said, “was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy,” adding that previous renewals were signed by former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both Republicans.
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