Voting rights activists press for weekend vote, online registration

Voting rights activists press for weekend vote, online registration
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Civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King III, are amping up the pressure on President Obama and the 2016 White House contenders to tackle low voter turnout by overhauling the rules governing the nation's elections.

The advocates are marking Thursday’s 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) with a rally on the National Mall calling for new efforts to knock down what they consider to be barriers to the polls.

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The activists want lawmakers to consider online registration and an expansion of the voting window to include a weekend, which they argue would make it easier for people to cast their ballots.

Behind King and Andrew Young, the former United Nations ambassador and civil rights activist who now heads the voting rights group Why Tuesday?, the activists have challenged each of the 2016 presidential candidates to outline their ideas for addressing the low voter turnout that's plagued recent elections — a request that came with an unveiled threat to call out those who ignore the plea.

“If you refuse to speak up by the extended deadline … tomorrow we will regrettably be reminding voters, that even people who claim to have the moral fiber to lead our nation don’t have the courage and commitment to speak up on this vitally important issue,” William B. Wachtel, a New York-based attorney and co-founder of Why Tuesday?, wrote in an email sent Wednesday to each of the campaigns.

The Hill contacted the offices of the top 15 GOP presidential contenders, as well as the three leading Democrats.

Only two, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley, responded with a prescription for the turnout problem. 

Clinton, the former secretary of State, is pushing a host of reforms, including automatic voter registration; a 20-day voting window to include weekends; and efforts to eliminate lines at the polls.
 
O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, is calling for a constitutional amendment to protect voting rights — a shot at the tougher voting requirements adopted by a number of conservative states in the wake of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted a central part of the Voting Rights Act.

Obama has not been spared the scrutiny.

Citing the country's abysmal voter turnout rates, the activists are pressing the president to embrace the idea of placing photos on Social Security cards for ID purposes at the polls, a controversial concept that’s split leading voices in the Democratic Party.

Supporters of that proposal — including former Presidents Clinton and Carter — say it's an inexpensive way to empower voters for whom other forms of ID are either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Liberal critics fear it could legitimize the controversial requirement, adopted by many conservative states, that voters show photo IDs to cast a ballot.

In a timely decision issued Wednesday, a U.S. appeals court ruled that Texas's tough voter ID law, adopted in 2013, would effectively discriminate against minority voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling has only fueled the Democratic criticisms of similar laws around the country, while amplifying their calls to renew VRA protections shot down by the Supreme Court two years ago.

Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), who was the lead plaintiff in the Texas case, said the court “has taken the first steps towards ensuring that all Texans have unfettered access to the ballot box.”

Former White House spokesman Jay Carney said 16 months ago that officials “haven't had an opportunity to review all of the implications” of putting photos on Social Security cards, suggesting they were reviewing the idea. But the administration has not adopted a clearer position since then, and the White House did not respond to questions on the topic Wednesday.

The activists on Thursday have a response: They plan to hand out thousands of Social Security cards bearing the president's picture.

Norman Ornstein, congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and another co-founder of Why Tuesday?, has been working with the civil rights leaders to allow photos on Social Security cards. 

He said the voluntary photos, which could be processed by local postal and Social Security offices, would benefit vulnerable people, including seniors who no longer drive and poor voters for whom passports and drivers licenses are a significant expense. The wave of states adopting new photo ID requirements has made the need more pressing, he argued.

“There's no reason why the federal government couldn't establish a federal standard for federal elections,” Ornstein said Wednesday.

He said legislation adopting the change would be the ideal route, “but it would be a great start if the president did it by executive order.”

Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldDemocrats likely to gain seats under new North Carolina maps North Carolina poised to pass new congressional maps Black leaders say African American support in presidential primary is fluid MORE (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the CBC hasn't taken a position on the Social Security photo proposal.

“It's a subject that needs to be explored,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview.

But King has met with him on two occasions to pitch the idea, and Butterfield said he could get behind it in the absence of compelling evidence that it would backfire and restrict voters' access to the polls.

“It's an intriguing concept,” Butterfield said.

For the voting rights activists, the Social Security proposal is just one of a much longer list of reforms they're urging. Others include the move to make Election Day a national holiday and allow absentee ballots without requiring an excuse.

The advocates have found a strong ally in Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who introduced a package of bills on Wednesday allowing online voter registration nationwide while expanding the voting window to at least a week.

“In a polarized Democracy, individuals of all political stripes ought to be able to agree that we should make it as easy as possible for voters to participate in the process,” Schumer said in a statement. “This legislation would do just that.”