© Getty Images
Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Friends, foes spar in fight on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Sanders: 'What do the Russians have on Mr. Trump?' MORE (I-Vt.) on Thursday celebrated the golden anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) by teeing off on policymakers advocating tougher election laws.
Appearing at a civil rights rally on the National Mall commemorating the law's birthday, Sanders warned of "a multi-pronged attack on democracy in America" — a reference both to GOP leaders refusing to update the VRA and the dozens of states that have passed new voting restrictions in recent years.
Sanders, who's vying for the White House as a Democrat, said those laws are not designed to combat voter fraud, as supporters claim, but to disenfranchise entire populations who hold opposing political views.
"My job as a candidate is to get people to vote for me based on my ideas. My job is not to figure out a way to keep people whose views are different from mine from voting," Sanders said to cheers.
"And let me be very clear and say it in a non-partisan way: Anybody who is suppressing the vote, anybody who is intentionally trying to keep people from voting because the candidate knows that those people would vote against him or her, that person is a political coward," he added.
"If you don't have the guts to run for office on your ideas, then you shouldn't run for office at all."
Staged at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, Thursday's rally was designed as a platform for civil rights leaders to call for sweeping reforms in how federal elections are conducted.
Among a host of proposals, advocates are calling for national online registration, Social Security cards with photos to serve as voter IDs and an expansion of the voting window beyond the traditional Tuesday Election Day.
"Think about it: If you wanted to have a party, would you have it on a Tuesday if you wanted folks to come?" asked Martin Luther King III, eldest son of the slain civil rights hero. "We are a better nation than the behavior we're exhibiting."
The voting rights debate has intensified in recent years following the Supreme Court's 2013 decision nullifying a clause in the VRA that had required certain states with documented histories of racial discrimination at the polls to get federal approval before changing their election rules.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts upheld the federal government's authority to monitor local elections against such discrimination, but he deemed the coverage formula to be outdated and therefore unconstitutional.
Roberts invited Congress to "draft another formula based on current conditions" — a proposal Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have refused to consider.
A number of conservative states wasted no time using the ruling to adopt tougher voting laws, including moves to eliminate same-day registration, close early voting windows and require a photo ID to cast a ballot.
Supporters of those laws, including most Republicans, say they're necessary to prevent voter fraud. But critics, including most Democrats, maintain they're designed to discourage minorities, the poor and other vulnerable populations from voting at all.
"Voter fraud is, in fact, a serious crime in my view. It should be punished," Sanders said Thursday. "The good news is we have virtually no voter fraud in America. What is the fraud is the people who are changing laws because of so-called voter fraud. That's the fraud."
Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the NAACP, delivered a similar condemnation, framing his message in sweeping Biblical terms.
"The right to vote in this democracy is a sacrament, and the ballot box is our alter, and the alter and the sacrament have been desecrated by a Machiavellian frenzy of voter disenfranchisement laws from one end of the country to the other," Brooks said.
The voting-rights advocates won a huge victory Wednesday when a federal appeals court shot down Texas's strict voter ID law, adopted after the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling, on the basis that it would discriminate against minority voters in violation of the VRA.
The civil rights activists cheered that decision Thursday, but warned that similar laws in other states remain in place at the threat of voter access next year.
"We don't know what the impact is going to truly be on the 2016 elections," King said.
The activists are hoping to encourage voter participation and reverse the dismal turnout numbers that have plagued recent elections.
Sanders noted that only 37 percent of qualified voters went to the polls last November, and the numbers are even lower for young and low-income voters.
"How can we go around the world and talk to developing countries about the importance of democracy when we are losing important elements of our own democracy?" he asked.
Sanders said tougher state voting laws are not the only factor squelching voter turnout. He attacked the influence of money in politics as another culprit, arguing that the average voter simply feels voiceless in elections awash with billions of dollars.
"Does it sound like democracy when billionaires are literally buying candidates?" he asked. "That doesn't sound like democracy to me."
Sanders is backing an extended election window to include a weekend and announced Thursday that he'll introduce legislation making voter registration automatic for every 18-year-old.
Although not present, Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, made her presence felt Thursday, submitting a letter calling for sweeping election reforms that was read during the rally.
She's calling for an immediate update to the VRA, a 20-day in-person voting window and automatic registration nationwide.
“By contrast, most Republican candidates for President would put up new obstacles to voting," Clinton said Thursday in a statement.
"They should stop fear mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say."
Tags Bernie Sanders