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Democrats finally make voting rights a top priority

Voting-rights advocates have long wanted Democrats to embrace the fight over ballot access as an urgent civil-rights issue. This was the week when it happened.
A woman casts her ballot during early voting, Oct., 26, 2010, in Atlanta, Ga.
A woman casts her ballot during early voting, Oct., 26, 2010, in Atlanta, Ga.

For years, voting-rights advocates have been quietly urging Democrats and the Obama administration to fully embrace the fight over access to the ballot as a defining civil-rights issue of our day. This was the week when it finally happened.

The heightened rhetoric, which came from President Obama and other heavyweights in his party, is the latest sign that voting rights are likely to be a front-burner issue when Americans go to the polls this fall—at least  if Democrats have their way.

In a speech at the National Action Network convention in New York City Friday afternoon, Obama used his most forceful language yet on the subject to condemn Republican efforts to make voting harder.

"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," the president said. "Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote."

Obama continually linked today’s battles to the historic movement for African-American voting rights half a century ago, invoking the three young civil-rights activists who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 while registering voters.

"Americans 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 grandkids," Obama said, drawing raucous cheers from the crowd. "We’ve got to pay attention to this." 

Obama even took time to dissect the arguments of those who argue that voter ID laws are needed to stop fraud, citing a study showing a fraud rate of just 0.00002%. 

"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."

Obama’s rousing words come days after he called efforts to stop people voting “un-American” during a Houston fundraiser. And they follow on the heels of similar remarks this week from two of the other highest-profile Democrats in the country, Vice President Joe Biden and President Bill Clinton.

In linking today's voting restrictions to laws that kept blacks from the polls during segregation, Obama and his allies aren't explicitly saying that the ongoing GOP push to make voting harder is a racially motivated effort that has roots in the Jim Crow era. But they're certainly allowing that inference to be drawn.

To voting rights advocates, the new level of engagement from top Democrats, especially Obama himself, is welcome indeed.

“Nothing is more important than the American people hearing the president of the United States bringing the full passion and power of his voice and his position to the issue of promoting voting rights and an open democracy for every citizen,” said Barbara Arnwine, the president of the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

It's not just talk, either. The Democratic National Committee recently launched the Voter Expansion Project, which aims to push back against restrictive voting laws by registering new voters and supporting laws that expand access to the ballot. 

Attorney General Eric Holder has long been out front on the issue. After the Supreme Court badly weakened the Voting Rights Act last summer in the Shelby County ruling, Holder directed new Justice Department resources to voting rights cases, including filing challenges to the Texas and North Carolina laws. And in speeches, he has frequently condemned efforts to make voting harder.

But for Obama, it’s a notable shift in tone. After some voters waited eight hours or more to cast a ballot in 2012, the president was quick to appoint a high-level commission to recommend ways to improve the process. And he condemned the Shelby ruling as a "setback" for voting rights. But until today, he had shown limited passion on the voting issue, preferring to frame it as a design problem amenable to technical fixes, rather than as an urgent threat to America’s ideals of democracy and equality. He even has seemed to downplay the problem, telling msnbc’s Chris Matthews in December: “[I]f people feel engaged enough and have a sense of a stake in our democracy, you know, you’ll be able to vote.”

There’s a clear political purpose to the Democrats' new focus. In past mid-term elections, turnout among some of the party's core groups, especially African-Americans and students, has lagged, giving the GOP an edge. The goal is to use anger over voting restrictions to motivate those voters.

But the strategy could also have an impact on ongoing voting rights flashpoints. It’s taking shape as voting rights champions in Congress work to build support for legislation that would strengthen the Voting Rights Act in the wake of the Shelby ruling. Meanwhile, major court fights are shaping up over Texas’s strict voter ID law and North Carolina’s sweeping voting law, both of which are being challenged by the U.S. Justice Department. And Republicans in Ohio and Wisconsin recently cut early and weekend voting, potentially making it harder for some Democratic-leaning groups to get to the polls.

Penda Hair, the co-director of the Advancement Project, said that project's focus on racial minorities marks an important step in the long struggle to boost enagagement among historically marginalized groups . 

"I feel like that explicit holding-up of voters of color as a group that we want to facilitate participation is maybe a new era for political parties in this country," said Hair. "And I’m really pleased to see it." 

Obama's comments follow those of other leading Democrats this week. On Monday, Biden invoked Martin Luther King , President Lyndon Johnson and the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act to urge fellow Democrats to join the fight over access to voting. Biden was appearing in an online video released by the DNC, and first reported by msnbc, to promote its Voter Expansion Project.

And in a speech Wednesday at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Clinton sounded a similar theme.

“Is this what Martin Luther King gave his life for?” Clinton asked. “Is this what Lyndon Johnson employed his legendary skills for? Is this what America has become a great thriving democracy for? To restrict the franchise?” 

Adding to the salience of the issue this fall, groups aligned with both parties are pouring resources into secretary of state races in several key states, including Ohio, Colorado, and Nevada. Progressive groups are looking to elect voting rights champions, while conservatives are backing candidates who support voting restrictions. 

Voting rights will also be on the ballot in a more literal sense. Voters in Ohio and Illinois may get the chance to approve constitutional amendments that would strengthen access to the ballot in those states. Moving in the opposite direction, Montanans will vote on a GOP effort to cut same-day voter registration, while Missouri, Nevada, California may ask voters to consider imposing voter ID requirements.