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Obama Calls on Congress to Restore Voting Rights Act

In an open letter published in New York Times Magazine, the president urged lawmakers to defend the progress made under the 1965 Act amid efforts by some state legislatures to undermine it.

by Liz Fields
Aug 12 2015, 7:45pm

Photo by Bill Frakes/AP

President Barack Obama has penned an open letter in The New York Times Magazine calling on federal lawmakers to restore the Voting Rights Act amid a "concentrated effort to undermine this historic law and turn back the clock on its progress."

The letter, published Wednesday, comes less than a week after the 50th anniversary of the act, and in response to the magazine's cover story by Jim Rutenberg from late July, which documented efforts by state governments — particularly in the South — to roll back various voting protections afforded to minority voters under the Act. Many of the provisions currently in danger significantly increased voter participation among African American communities after the Act was passed in 1965.

"These efforts are not a sign that we have moved past the shameful history that led to the Voting Rights Act," Obama wrote. "Too often, they are rooted in that history. They remind us that progress does not come easy, but that it must be vigorously defended."

"Congress must restore the Voting Rights Act," he added." Our state leaders and legislatures must make it easier — not harder — for more Americans to have their voices heard.

Related: Activist, Preacher, Civil Disobedience Leader: Rev. William Barber on North Carolina's Landmark Voting Rights Trial

Obama's letter follows similar calls from civil rights activists in recent months. Groups, including the NAACP, have rallied for Congress to pass the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act 2015 in the wake of the Supreme Court's Shelby County v. Holder ruling two years earlier, which cast out various voting protections previously provided under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, including a federal requirement known as "preclearance," which mandated that states with a history of racial discrimination must first have voting laws vetted by the Justice Department before they can be enacted.

"The Voting Rights Act put an end to literacy tests and other forms of discrimination, helping to close the gap between our promise that all of us are created equal and our long history of denying some of us the right to vote," Obama wrote. "But as Rutenberg chronicles, from the moment the ink was dry on the Voting Rights Act, there has been a concentrated effort to undermine this historic law and turn back the clock on its progress."

That "concentrated effort" includes a law (HB589) introduced to North Carolina by its Republican-controlled legislature just two months after the Supreme Court's Shelby decision. This year, the NAACP filed a court challenge to HB589, which cut back early voting periods by a week, eliminated same-day registration, and introduced restrictive voter ID provisions. The three-week trial concluded at the end of July, but a decision, which could have significant impact across the country, is not expected until later this year.

In his open letter Wednesday, Obama noted the story of Rosanell Eaton, a 94-year-old North Carolinian, who as a teen, successfully registered to vote in the 1940s by reciting the preamble to the Constitution.

"I am where I am today only because men and women like Rosanell Eaton refused to accept anything less than a full measure of equality," Obama wrote. "Their efforts made our country a better place. It is now up to us to continue those efforts."

Eaton, a civil rights activist and former middle school teacher, is also a plaintiff in a separate upcoming legal challenge to HB589's voter ID provisions. Earlier this month, Eaton told VICE News from her home in Louisville, North Carolina she found the new restrictions "disgusting."

"I went through all that before, now we're going through it again," she said. "We shouldn't' be rolling back [voting rights], we should be going forward, not backward."

Related: 50 Years after Selma March, Activists Walk Again to Restore Voting Rights in South

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields