President Barack Obama accused Republicans of waging a systematic campaign to deny voting rights through state laws that require new standards of identification to cast ballots.
“This recent effort to restrict the right to vote has not been led by both parties,” Obama said yesterday at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network conference in New York. “It has been led by the Republican Party.”
To protect voting rights, Obama said, Democrats must register voters and go to the polls on election day.
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.
The National Action Network venue allowed Obama to extend a narrative he began on April 10 in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act at the Lyndon B. Johnson presidential library in Austin, Texas.
“Every citizen doesn’t just have a right to vote, they have a responsibility to vote,” Obama told his predominantly black audience yesterday. He promised to do his part to counter what he called “bogus arguments about voter fraud” by Republicans. “I’m not going to let attacks on these rights go unchallenged.”
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, U.S. 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 said 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.