Obama, Clinton move to leadership roles in voting rights debate

SAN FRANCISCO – The decision by Hillary Clinton to give her first major policy speech since she left the State Department on voting rights illustrates how an issue that once had been largely been confined to liberal activists has now become one of the central causes of key Democratic leaders.

Clinton, in a speech in San Francisco at the American Bar Association, bluntly attacked controversial voting laws passed by Republicans, calling them a national “assault on voting rights” and described a series of provisions  adopted on Monday by the state of North Carolina as “the greatest hits of voter suppression.”

The speech by the potential 2016 candidate comes after President Obama held a meeting last month at the White House with key civil rights leaders to discuss how to mobilize activists and push Congress to update the Voting Rights Act, after its Section 4 was struck down by the Supreme Court in June. Attorney General Eric Holder has made voting one of his main focuses as well, pushing a novel legal theory in which courts could invoke the VRA’s Section 3 and require states like Texas to pre-clear any changes to their voting laws.

“Anyone who says racial discrimination is no longer a problem in American elections must not be paying attention,” Clinton said, joining Obama’s call for Congress to update the VRA in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Party leaders, including Obama, said little last year in the midst of intense battles over voting laws  that occurred throughout the country and often pitted Republican lawmakers and officials against liberal activists like the Rev. Al Sharpton and groups like the ACLU and the NAACP. But the continued push of Republicans in states to limit early voting and same-day registration and require photo ID’s to vote, along with the Supreme Court decision, has pushed the issue to the forefront.

The moves by Clinton and Obama also show an understanding of a new reality: voting laws are increasingly at the center of American politics, deeply dividing the two parties. Republican-led states are passing voter laws throughout the South. There is little evidence that states with voter ID actually have lower minority turnout, and polls suggest even a majority of blacks support such provisions. But civil rights activists are concerned about these laws because they appear targeted at young people and minorities, two groups that lean Democratic in voting. African-American voters disproportionately use early voting programs and don’t have photo ID’s.

Meanwhile, there is a push by Democratic-run states to expand early voting and ease same-day registration, as Maryland and Colorado did earlier this year, as such laws are likely to ease voting for minorities and young people, who tend to back Democratic candidates.

The timing was coincidental, but striking, as Clinton delivered her speech on the day that North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed into law a measure that requires a government-issued ID to vote, cuts early voting days from 17 to 10, ends same-day registration and bans paid voter registration drives. The law, which helped lead to a group of protests in Raleigh called Moral Mondays, was blasted by Clinton because it combines many of the provisions most hated by Democrats into one single measure.

Civil rights groups are almost certain to file suit to get the law struck down, as they did successfully last year following the passage of controversial voting laws in Florida and Wisconsin.

But the moves by Clinton, Holder and Obama are unlikely to have any immediate success. It remains doubtful federal courts will require Southern states to pre-clear their voting laws, as Holder advocates, after the U.S.  Supreme Court rejected Section 4. Updating the VRA in Congress, as Obama and Clinton have urged, is unlikely in a highly-polarized Congress.

perry.bacon@nbcuni.com