NEW YORK (CNN) — If President Barack Obama’s remarks Thursday at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library were meant to honor the legacy of the civil rights movement, Friday’s speech to a rights group in New York focused on an area where activists say work remains in achieving racial equality.
Obama addressed voting rights as part of his speech to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, continuing the White House’s effort to spotlight Republican-backed measures they say place undue hardships on voting for minorities, students and immigrants.
They hope the issue will help galvanize voters to elect Democrats in this year’s midterm elections, where the party’s control of the Senate appears in jeopardy.
Obama said on Friday the right to vote is “threatened today” in a way that hasn’t been seen since before the Voting Rights Act became law nearly 50 years ago.
He said he’s not against “reasonable attempts to secure the vote.” But he said he is against rules requiring IDs that millions of Americans don’t have. Not having such required identification “shouldn’t prevent you from exercising your right to vote,” he said.
Vice President Joe Biden and Attorney General Eric Holder have both taken on the issue in the past week, each declaring that voting rights were a top priority for the administration.
Obama’s Justice Department has filed suit against Texas and North Carolina, seeking to block proposed voter ID laws in each state and claiming the regulations are discriminatory to people who don’t have photo identification — a group that includes a large number of minorities.
Proponents of voter ID laws say they’re designed to prevent fraud at the ballot box.
North Carolina’s law also shortened the period of early voting, eliminated same-day registration, and put some restrictions on how provisional ballots are counted.
A rash of new voting laws — and the subsequent lawsuits — are a consequence of last year’s Supreme Court decision that struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The invalidated section required certain states to obtain permission from the federal government before altering voting laws.
In the ruling, justices said Congress must re-determine how places are put on the list using updated data — a tough proposition for a body already mired in partisan gridlock. Lawmakers last reauthorized that “pre-clearance” requirement in 2006 without making any major changes to the method of how a place is included on the list of states needing federal permission.
House and Senate lawmakers have introduced bipartisan measures that would require states with recent voting violations to have their proposed changes approved by the federal government, though voter ID laws would be permitted.
The White House hasn’t said yet whether Obama would support the measure, saying only the President welcomed Congressional action on the issue.
The original voting rights act was passed in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose legacy Obama hailed on Thursday during remarks in Austin.
Obama, along with three other living presidents, convened at the library this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, which for the first time outlawed discrimination in public places.
During his remarks, President Bill Clinton accused those who support new voting laws of retracting important progress in achieving equality.
“We all know what this is about. This is a way of restricting the franchise after 50 years of expanding it,” Clinton said.
By Kevin Liptak