Obama on Voter Suppression: The Right Speech in the Wrong Place

The president is right to speak out, but he needs to preach to someone other than the converted.
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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

There was great truth in the stern message President Obama delivered Friday about Republican voter-suppression efforts around the country. These measures are pernicious and partisan. They do further separate rich from poor, whites from minorities, state from state in this country. And they are based upon the demonstrably false idea that voter fraud by citizens is such a pervasive problem that it only can be thwarted by making it more difficult for already the most marginalized citizens to exercise their right to vote.

"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," Obama told Al Sharpton's National Action Network in New York. "Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote," he said, relating anecdotes of voters turned away because they didn't have the right identification or because they needed a passport or birth certificate to register."

Here is the full speech:

The president should be saying these things now. This fight is essential to our democracy, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings. The idea that the Court's five conservatives would within 10 months make it far easier for rich people to influence politics and far more difficult for poor people to cast a ballot is an affront to what we teach our kids about civics and the Constitution. We don't teach them that you have a right to vote only if you can afford to drive.

But if the president is going to change the voting-rights debate, if he is going to win the argument he evidently feels strongly about making, he is going to have to preach to more than the converted. And few groups today are more converted on the perils of voter suppression today than NAN. By taking on the topic in New York with Sharpton, Obama made precisely the right speech to precisely the wrong crowd.

Although blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by the new generation of voting restrictions, these laws discriminate most directly based on class, not race. Poor white people are disenfranchised along with poor black people and elderly people and young people. In Texas, state officials have made it nearly impossible for an hourly-wage earner to get a new photo identification, no matter what her race, by restricting hours of operations for licensing offices.

The supporters of these laws say, correctly, that they do not discriminate on their face based upon race. That's why the president cannot allow this to become a black-versus-white issue, even though black and Hispanic advocates are rightfully concerned about the impact these laws are having on their communities. The notion that this is a racial issue is only reinforced when he stands with Al Sharpton and tells that audience what it already knows to be true.

Thanks to Chief Justice John Roberts, Obama may no longer have Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act on his side in this debate. But he has the facts on his side. And he has history, ancient and immediate, on his side. It's time he took those facts, and this debate, to enemy ground. The president should make this speech at the Heritage Foundation, or at graduation ceremony next month in North Carolina, where some of the most egregious voter suppression in the nation is underway in the wake of the Supreme Court's Shelby County ruling.

Obama needs to make his case about voter suppression to white suburban voters everywhere, the ones who can afford to own cars, and who drive, and who have long had driver's licenses. He has to explain to these affluent and middle-class voters how and why tens of millions of their fellow citizens, who also have a right to vote, cannot afford cars, or cannot otherwise drive because they are ill or too old, and who thus don't otherwise have the need to have the sort of photo ID that some states now would require.

He's got to engage with the woman who says blithely: "If I need to show ID to get cold medicine why shouldn't I have to show an ID to vote?" He's got to engage with the man who cries that "voter fraud" is rampant but cannot cite proof that this is so. There is an excellent case to be made against voter suppression, and the president has consistently shown that he knows how to make it, but it has to be directed at the right audience and it has to be made over and over and over again until it seeps through.

John Kennedy stood up to the Protestant ministers in September 1960 and talked about how his Catholic faith would (and would not) affect his work as president. A few years later, Lyndon Johnson stood up to his fellow southern Democrats and told them there would be civil-rights legislation. Barack Obama needs to do something like that for voter suppression.

It could be on Fox News. It could be from the Oval Office. It could be in the form of a "town meeting" on voting rights. It could be in the form of a debate with any one of a dozen Republican senators who wear their backing voter suppression as a badge of honor. It doesn't matter. If Obama is as serious on the topic as he appears to be, what matters now is that he show the courage to go into hostile venues and work to change hearts and minds until the myths about voter fraud dissipate and the truth about voter suppression emerges.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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