Civil Rights Leaders Call For States To Expand Voting Rights

Civil rights leaders meeting in Atlanta say states, including Texas and North Carolina, are deliberately trying to make it more difficult for voters. They're calling for a national campaign to strengthen voting rights, increase voter participation and eliminate long lines at the polls.

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Civil rights leaders and legislators from across the country met in Atlanta this week. They are calling for a 50-state campaign to expand voting rights. They're fighting to get states to pass measures that would provide greater ballot access.

And as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, they're pushing back against recently passed voter ID laws that they say are discriminatory.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Leaders met outside historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, to launch a new grassroots voting rights movement. The 91-year-old dean of the civil rights movement, Joseph Lowery, says much has changed since the 1960s. Thousands of African-Americans are elected to state and federal offices and Barack Obama is in the White House.

Yet Lowery says much has remained the same with states passing laws that diminish the votes of black people, the poor and the elderly.

JOSEPH LOWERY: We've come here today to declare that we ain't gonna let nobody take away our vote.

LOHR: The initiative comes after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act in June, and earlier this week North Carolina GOP Governor Pat McCrory signed a voter ID bill that requires government-issued photo IDs and shortens the early voting period. It also ends a program that allowed 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote. McCrory issued a short video statement about his decision.

GOVERNOR PAT MCCRORY: Protecting the integrity of every vote case is among the most important duties I have as governor. And it's why I signed these common sense, commonplace protections into law.

LOHR: The governor and other Republicans across the country have backed photo ID laws as necessary to prevent voter fraud. But some legislators say massive voting irregularities just don't exist. They say the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights law has created a climate where some states feel emboldened to act. About 30 states have passed or are looking into laws that restrict access to voting, including North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Texas.

State Representative Stacey Abrams is a Georgia Democrat. She says this campaign hopes to restore and preserve voting rights across the country.

REPRESENTATIVE STACEY ABRAMS: To unify those 50 states to make sure that we're all pushing together to expand voting rights. We're also going to, secondly, lift up those legislators who are doing the right thing and we're gonna hold accountable those legislators that are doing the wrong thing.

LOHR: A new election law in Colorado is the model Abrams would like to see adopted across the country. That law shortens residency requirements, increases the use of mail-in ballots, and allows people to register and vote on the same day.

ABRAMS: We should not be making voting harder. We should be making it easier. Technology has advanced. Why haven't our voting rights laws?

LOHR: Many here emphasize the voting rights, equality and freedom they're seeking to preserve today are the same rights activists fought for in the 1960s. Again, Joseph Lowery.

LOWERY: We've come too far, marched too long, prayed too hard, wept too bitterly, bled too profusely and died too young to let anybody take away our journey to justice and our right to vote.

LOHR: Already some people watching the effort say it has the potential to create real change. Peniel Joseph is head of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University.

PENIEL JOSEPH: They can change things substantively, everything from voter education to registering many new voters. But I think there's a number of ways that they can actually impact the new normal and the new political voting normal by building a movement.

LOHR: Joseph says the campaign also needs support from influential politicians and from the U.S. Justice Department. The U.S. Attorney General has already indicated he will monitor state voting laws and fight some of them. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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