Delivering the keynote address which concluded the National Action Network's convention in New York City, on Friday, April 11, Obama declared, "Just as inequality feeds on injustice, opportunity requires justice. And justice requires the right to vote."
Just the day before, at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, he had reflected upon the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under President Lyndon B Johnson, and his remarks built on that theme. The Voting Rights Act, which some regard as even more crucial an achievement, did not come until 1965.
"President Johnson, right after he signed the Civil Rights Act into law, told his advisers -- some of whom were telling him, well, all right, just wait. You’ve done a big thing now; let’s let the dust settle, don’t stir folks up. He said, no, no, I can’t wait. We’ve got to press forward and pass the Voting Rights Act. Johnson said, 'About this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.'”
Showing a full gamut of emotions during his 20-minute speech, from bemusement to impassioned invocation, to a folksy, intimate conversation, he used the fabricated controversy over his birth certificate to make the more serious point of documents being required to vote that low-income people, elderly people, urbanites, young people may not have, and even women, who by virtue of getting married have a different name on their drivers' license, may be denied access to the polls, while in other districts, people are being forced to stand for hours on end in order to cast a ballot.
But here in New York, he was literally speaking to the choir - the people who have continued the crusade for political and economic justice and who appreciate better than perhaps anyone else the threat to voting rights underway in states across the country, bolstered now, by the Republican Majority on the Supreme Court overturning key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that LBJ spearheaded in 1965.
He pointed to some successes in his administration - 9 million jobs created since the financial collapse of 2008, the Affordable Care Act that saw nearly 8 million enrollees, millions more covered under expanded Medicaid and a significant drop in the percentage of uninsured, lowered high school drop out rates.
But he talked, as well, about the Opportunity Agenda - raising the minimum wage, universal Pre-K, access to affordable health care, pay equity, job training, access to higher education, addressing the impacts of carbon pollution that disproportionately affect low-income communities, immigration reform, that can only be achieved, first because of the ballot box.
The best example of what is at stake is "continuing to extend the right of quality, affordable health care for every American in every state, because we’ve got some states that aren’t doing the right thing..
"We have states who just out of political spite are leaving millions of people uninsured that could be getting health insurance right now," he said in a not-so-veiled attack on states dominated by Republicans, who have made opposition and obstruction of Obamacare an ideological battle.
"No good reason for it. If you ask them what’s the explanation they can’t really tell you."
Fundamental to achieving the opportunity agenda he said, is the right to vote.
"Voting is a time when we all have an equal say -— black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. It doesn't matter. In the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our democracy, we’re all supposed to have that equal right to cast our ballot to help determine the direction of our society.
"The principle of one person, one vote is the single greatest tool we have to redress an unjust status quo. You would think there would not be an argument about this anymore. But 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.
"Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote. In some places, women could be turned away from the polls just because they’re registered under their maiden name but their driver’s license has their married name. Senior citizens who have been voting for decades may suddenly be told they can no longer vote until they can come up with the right ID.
"In other places, folks may learn that without a document like a passport or a birth certificate, they can’t register. About 60 percent of Americans don’t have a passport. Just because you don’t have the money to travel abroad doesn't mean you shouldn’t be able to vote here at home."
He joked, "And just to be clear, I know where my birth certificate is, but a lot of people don’t," prompting laughter and applause. "I think it’s still up on a website somewhere. (Laughter.) You remember that? That was crazy. That was some crazy stuff. (Laughter and applause.) I hadn’t thought about that in a while. (Laughter.)"
He distinguished between the phony battle against voter fraud which is used to justify voter suppression.
"Now, I want to be clear -- I am not against reasonable attempts to secure the ballot. We understand that there has to be rules in place. But I am against requiring an ID that millions of Americans don’t have. That shouldn’t suddenly prevent you from exercising your right to vote. (Applause.)
"The first words put to paper in our American story tell us that all of us are created equal. And we understand that it took a long time to make sure that those words meant something. But 50 years ago, we put laws in place, because of enormous struggles, to vindicate that idea; to make our democracy truly mean something. And that makes it wrong to pass laws that make it harder for any eligible citizen to vote, especially because every citizen doesn't just have the right to vote, they have a responsibility to vote. (Applause.)"
Obama acknowledged the legitimacy of protecting against voter fraud, but noted that the instances are so rare - he cited one study that found only 10 cases of alleged in-person voter impersonation in 12 years and another analysis found that out of 197 million votes cast for federal elections between 2002 and 2005, only 40 voters - as to make the obsession with voter fraud, as opposed to voter suppression callous and purposeful, noting that some Republican politicians have been blunt in acknowledging that they are putting obstacles in front of voting booths would give Republicans an advantage.
"Some of them have not been shy about saying that they’re doing this for partisan reasons.
"So let’s be clear," Obama said, "the real voter fraud is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud," he said to thunderous applause.
“'It is wrong,' President Johnson said, 'deadly wrong, to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country.'
"It is wrong to change our election rules just because of politics," Obama declared, his voice becoming stronger and more animated. "It is wrong to make citizens wait for five, six, seven hours just to vote. It is wrong to make a senior citizen who no longer has a driver’s license jump through hoops and have to pay money just to exercise the rights she has cherished for a lifetime.
"America did not stand up and did not march and did not sacrifice to gain the right to vote for themselves and for others only to see it denied to their kids and their grandchildren. We’ve got to pay attention to this," he said to loud applause.
"And as President, I’m not going to let attacks on these rights go unchallenged. We’re not going to let voter suppression go unchallenged."
He noted that the Justice Department, headed by Attorney General Eric Holder, who had addresses NAN earlier in the week, has taken on more than 100 voting rights cases since 2009, "and they’ve defended the rights of everybody from African Americans to Spanish speakers to soldiers serving overseas."
Obama pointed to the bipartisan commission he appointed soon after the 2012 election, chaired by both his election lawyer and Mitt Romney's, which earlier this year issued its recommendations for "common-sense reforms to modernize voter registration, and to curb the potential for fraud in smart way, and ensure that no one has to wait for more than half an hour to cast a ballot. States and local election boards should take up those recommendations. And with the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer almost upon us, I urge members of Congress to honor those who gave their lives so that others could exercise their rights, and update the Voting Rights Act. Go ahead and get that done. Do it because the right to vote is something cherished by every American.
"We should not be having an argument about this. There are a lot of things we can argue about, but the right to vote? I mean, what kind of political platform is that? (Laughter.) Why would you make that a part of your agenda, preventing people from voting? How can you defend that? There are a whole bunch of folks out there who don’t vote for me; didn’t vote for me, don’t like what I do. The idea that I would prevent them from voting and exercising their franchise makes no sense.
"Black or white, man or woman, urban, rural, rich, poor, Native American, disabled, gay, straight, Republican or Democrat -- voters who want to vote should be able to vote. Period. Full stop. (Applause.) Voting is not a Democratic issue, it’s not a Republican issue. It’s an issue of citizenship. (Applause.) It’s what makes our democracy strong.
"But it’s a fact this recent effort to restrict the vote has not been led by both parties -- it’s been led by the Republican Party. And in fairness, it’s not just Democrats who are concerned. You had one Republican state legislator point out -- and I’m quoting here -- “Making it more difficult for people to vote is not a good sign for a party that wants to attract more people.... "I want a competitive Republican Party, just like a competitive Democratic Party. That’s how our democracy is supposed to work -- the competition of ideas. But I don’t want folks changing the rules to try to restrict people’s access to the ballot.
"If your strategy depends on having fewer people show up to vote, that’s not a sign of strength, that’s a sign of weakness," he said, echoing a phrase he used to belittle russian President Vladimir Putin's takeover of the Crimea.
"And not only is it ultimately bad politics. I believe ultimately it harms the entire country. If voting is denied to the many, we risk ending up stuck year after year with special interest policies that benefit a fortunate few. And injustice perpetuates inequality."
Obama then turned from Voting Rights, to a call to exercise that right in the coming election, when traditionally, the President's party loses seats in Congress because of poor turnout, and in this case, means that the Senate could fall to Republican control, which would guarantee the end of the Obama agenda, from climate change to immigration reform.
"But remember, just as injustice perpetuates inequality, justice opens up opportunity. And as infuriating as efforts to roll back hard-earned rights can be, the trajectory of our history has to give us hope. The story of America is a story of progress. No matter how often or how intensely that progress has been challenged, ultimately this nation has moved forward. As Dr. King said, 'The arc of the moral universe is long, [but] it bends towards justice.' We move forward on civil rights and we move forward on workers’ rights, and we move forward on women’s rights and disability rights and gay rights.
"We show that when ordinary citizens come together to participate in this democracy we love, justice will not be denied. So the single most important thing we can do to protect our right to vote is to vote. (Applause.)
"So I’m going to make one last point here. We’re going to have an attorney general that looks at all the laws that are being passed. We’re going to have civic organizations that are making sure that state laws and local laws are doing what they’re supposed to do. We will fight back whenever we see unfairly the franchise being challenged.
"But the truth is that for all these laws that are being put in place, the biggest problem we have is people giving up their own power -- voluntarily not participating.
"The number of people who voluntarily don't vote, who are eligible to vote, dwarfs whatever these laws are put in place might do in terms of diminishing the voting roles.
"So we can’t treat these new barriers as an excuse not to participate. We can't use cynicism as an excuse not to participate. Sometimes I hear people saying, well, we haven’t gotten everything we need -- we still have poverty, we still have problems. Of course. These things didn't happen overnight.
"So I want you to go out there and redouble your efforts. Register more voters. Help more folks to get their rights. Get those souls to the polls. If they won’t let you do it on Sunday, then do it on a Tuesday instead. ...
"We’re at a time when we’re marking many anniversaries. And it’s interesting for me -- I’ve been on this Earth 52 years, and so to see the progress we’ve made is to see my own life and the progression that's happened. You think about Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, and Freedom Summer.
"And with those anniversaries, we have new reason to remember those who made it possible for us to be here. Like the three civil rights workers in Mississippi -- two white, one black -- who were murdered 50 years ago as they tried to help their fellow citizens register to vote. James Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner believed so strongly that change was possible they were willing to lay down their lives for it.
"The least you can do is take them up on the gift that they have given you. (Applause.) Go out there and vote. You can make a change. You do have the power.
"I’ve run my last election, but I need you to make sure that the changes that we started continue for decades to come."
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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