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Partisan Divide Over Voting Rights Has Intensified In Obama Era


With two weeks to go before Election Day, President Obama spent some time this week doing radio interviews aimed at African-American listeners. He's trying to boost black voter turnout. But the president has to walk a fine line to avoid hurting his fellow Democrats in red battleground states. And we'll hear more about that in a moment. First, NPR's Scott Horsley reports the president's efforts come at a time when critics accuse Republicans of trying to suppress turnout with new voter restrictions.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: This is a story that begins 22 years ago when Bill Clinton was running for president. Civil rights activist Sandy Newman was looking for someone to run a voter registration drive in Chicago, and he turned to a community organizer named Barack Obama. Newman says Obama was hesitant at first. He'd just graduated from Harvard Law School and had a contract to write his first book.

SANDY NEWMAN: He actually came back to me and asked if he could do the job part-time. And I laughed and said it would be full-time and then some.

HORSLEY: The effort that Obama led helped register more than 150,000 African-Americans. The campaign slogan was it's a power thing. It made a powerful impression on Obama, who turned registering new voters into a big part of his own presidential campaigns two decades later.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm here with the Obama campaign, and we're out here just making sure that people are registered to vote today.

HORSLEY: But while Obama and his allies were working to bring more people to the polls, a countermovement was underway with the stated purpose of preventing election fraud. Although examples of in-person voter fraud are almost unheard of, nearly two-dozen states have taken steps to restrict voting with fewer hours, limited registration and new requirements that voters show a photo ID. Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach of Kansas is in the vanguard of this effort.

KRIS KOBACH: You consider that we have lots of close elections. And if you have just a handful of illegitimate votes, then you've got a real problem because you potentially can have illegal votes swinging the outcome of the election.

HORSLEY: After the botched Florida election of 2000 highlighted the importance of election mechanics, there was a trickle of new voting restrictions. But Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice says the real tidal wave began in 2010 amidst the conservative backlash to President Obama. One state after another took steps to restrict access to the ballot box. And when the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the voting rights act last year, a seawall designed to prevent discrimination - in mostly southern states - was washed away.

WENDY WEISER: When the Supreme Court gutted that protection, we saw a real increase in restrictive voting laws pushed especially in the states that were previously covered but also elsewhere across the country.

HORSLEY: While neutral on the surface, research shows these new voting restrictions tend to fall hardest on minorities, the poor and the very young and old. One of the early voting weekends eliminated by Ohio, for example, was traditionally favored by African-American churchgoers. And as Obama noted in a speech this spring, not every eligible voter has a photo ID or the documents needed to get one.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Just to be clear, I know where my birth certificate is but a lot of people don't, a lot of people don't.

HORSLEY: This month, the Government Accountability Office concluded that voter ID requirements, like the one pushed by Kobach in Kansas, do suppress voter turnout. And the Brennan Center's Weiser argues that's no accident. Many of the states with new restrictions have large African-American turnout or growing Latino populations. And of the 22 states that moved to tighten voting, 18 have Republican legislatures.

WEISER: In virtually every state that passed new laws cutting back on voting rights over the last couple of years, they were passed through Republican-controlled bodies.

HORSLEY: This month, the conservative Federal Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner joined critics who accused the GOP of trying to suppress voter turnout for partisan purposes. Posner is a Reagan appointee who, seven years ago, wrote the opinion upholding Indiana's voter ID law, but he's since changed his mind. Wisconsin's claim to be fighting voter fraud, he writes, is a mere fig leaf for efforts to disenfranchise voters likely to vote for Democrats. Anything that diminishes the black vote could help Republicans in this year's close midterm contest.

But Obama argues over the long term, the strategy is likely to backfire on the GOP.


OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: One thing hasn't changed. Twenty-two years after Obama ran that first registration drive, access to the ballot box is still a power thing. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.