Civil rights activists, voting rights groups and Democratic leaders across the country—most notably Bill Clinton—have denounced the spate of new voting restrictions passed by Republicans since the 2010 election.
But this important topic didn’t come up in any of the presidential debates, and President Obama has been reluctant to weigh in on the controversy (although Michelle Obama gave a stirring speech at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation gala in September about the right to vote).
So it was refreshing to hear Jay Leno, of all people, ask Obama about “voter suppression” on The Tonight Show last night. Leno spotlighted an ad campaign in Pennsylvania (which he wrongly labeled as Colorado), where the state asks voters to “show it”—photo ID, that is—even though the fine print notes that “voters will be asked, but not required, to show an acceptable photo ID on Election Day.” (The Pennsylvania ACLU has asked the judge who blocked the law to halt the misleading ads).
It’s a problem. Now the Justice Department handles all these cases, so I can’t weigh in on any particular state. Here’s one thing I know: that throughout our history, our country’s always been stronger when everybody’s had a voice. It took a long time to make sure the franchise expanded to everybody. But we should be thinking about ways to make it easier for folks to vote, not to make it harder for folks to vote.
That’s why this early voting is really terrific. In Iowa, I think 25 percent of the people have already voted. In Ohio, folks are already voting. In a whole bunch of states—Florida, Colorado—people can already vote, and that’s especially important for people who don’t have as much flexibility on the job. If you’re a factory worker and you’ve got to punch a clock and maybe your shift is one where you’ve got to be there right on time, you’ve got to take a bus to get to work, it just makes it tougher. So now people can vote [early] and we want to encourage everybody, regardless of who you’re voting for, make sure to take advantage of it, and find out if you can exercise early voting in your state.
(The exchange begins at 2:10.)
Obama’s Justice Department has rightly opposed new discriminatory voting laws, such as voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, early voting cutbacks in Florida, and racially regressive redistricting maps in Texas, under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The federal courts have sided with DOJ, refusing to preclear Texas’s voter ID law and redistricting maps, Florida’s early voting limits in five counties subject to Section 5, and South Carolina’s voter ID law for 2012. Overall, courts have blocked ten major voter suppression laws passed since 2010.
The Obama campaign has also successfully fought new voting restrictions in court, winning a major victory in Ohio to restore early voting three days before the election. The latest data shows the Obama campaign out-performing its early voting numbers from 2008 in Iowa, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.
Yesterday, the Obama campaign released a new ad highlighting the Florida recount—an election decided by 537 votes—as a reason why Obama supporters shouldn’t sit this election out.
Voter suppression has reared its ugly head not only in Florida but in other crucial battleground states. The fight back against such efforts is now of the utmost importance. “This is the movement of our era,” Michelle Obama said last month, “protecting that fundamental right not just for this election, but for the next generation and generations to come.”
For more on the fight to preserve democracy, check out how undocumented immigrants are using grassroots activism to influence this election.