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“The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act was passed into law nearly five decades ago,” said President Barack Obama at the National Action Network Convention last Friday. “The real voter fraud is people trying to deny our rights by making voting harder in the first place.”
Obama spoke before an audience of 16,000 that treated him like rock star at the Sheraton Times Square Hotel. Before Obama took the stage, the Rev. Al Sharpton praised him for working to help America’s most vulnerable citizens.
“No president in the last 50 years has shown more action around protecting the rights of ordinary citizens and the civil rights of people denied than our action president, Barack Obama,” said Sharpton. “I’m not talking about style. I’m not talking about rhetoric. I’m not talking about who would high five us, I’m talking about action.”
With Sharpton introducing him beforehand, the president focused on the right to vote and directed his ire at conservatives for rolling back what civil rights activists fought for back in the 1960s.
“This recent effort to restrict the vote has not been led by both parties,” said Obama. “It’s been led by the Republican Party. If your strategy depends on having fewer people showing up to vote, that’s not a sign of strength. That’s a sign of weakness. And not only is it ultimately bad politics, ultimately it is bad for the country.”
Last June, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in a 5 to 4 vote. It freed nine states, mostly based in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. With more states dominated by conservative politicians installing voter identification laws, Obama urged the crowd not to give up and to continue to fight for the right to vote. He pushed the crowd to head to the polls whenever possible.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens,” said Obama. “As long as we don’t give our power away.” The president referred to the current wave of voter ID laws pushed in Republican-dominated states as “undemocratic.”
“About 60 percent of Americans don’t have a passport,” said Obama. “Just because you don’t have the money to travel abroad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote at home.”
The president also managed to joke about his own issues with identification and birth certificate conspiracy theories when he said, “Just to be clear, I know where my birth certificate is. I think it’s still up on a website somewhere. Do you remember that? That was crazy. I haven’t thought about that in a while.”
Despite the jokes and the serious nature of the speech, Obama pushed for people to take advantage of the right to vote, saying everything will take care of itself.
“The single most important thing we can do to protect our right to vote is to vote,” he said. “The number of people who voluntarily don’t vote dwarfs ... whatever these laws put in place might do to diminish voter rolls. We can’t use cynicism as an excuse not to participate.
“I’ve had my last election, but I need you to make sure that the changes that we started continue for decades to come,” Obama said.