President Obama Talks Voting Rights at Civil Rights Conference

The president says he doesn't want "folks changing the rules to try to restrict people's access to the ballot."
27:18 | 04/11/14

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Transcript for President Obama Talks Voting Rights at Civil Rights Conference
This is a special group. Hello from and I'm Devin Dwyer -- New York President Obama in the Big Apple today speaking right now at the reverend Al sharpton's annual civil rights conference. Let's go -- now more arts center. Opportunity means -- -- higher education for all who are willing to work for. Opportunity means answering the call to be in my brother's keeper and helping more boys and young men of color stay on track and reach their full potential. Before I came out thousand photo line so my good -- spreading pains. Greg pastor from. From the great state of Texas and he told me this summer they're gonna hire 100. Young man. Pay of ten dollars and ten cents an hour maybe ten -- As a consequence of this call and the point is that my brother's keeper that's not just something I do that's led to some from the government does -- something everybody can participated. Because we know these young man export. Opportunity means making the minimum wage a wage you can live all. That means equal pay for equal work. That means overtime pay for workers who burned. It means continuing to -- the right all the affordable healthcare for every American in every state because we've got. Some states that are doing the right back. We have states who just -- -- political -- Are leaving millions of people uninsured. That could be -- health insurance right now. No good reason for. If you ask them what's -- -- -- they can't really tell you. And by the way of making sure our citizens -- opting to lead healthy lives also means. Dealing with things like the dangerous carbon pollution -- disproportionately affecting. Low in -- communities. It means making sure that our young people are -- right so. Listen to Michelle. I'm just saying. So we know we've got more work to do. To bridge the gap between our founding ideals and the realities of our time. The question that becomes law how how we actually. Make these changes. How does happen how we get minimum wage bill passed that we make sure that. Those states that are. Yet implementing Affordable Care Act actually are doing right by their citizens. It means being vigilant. We've got to be vigilant to secure the gains we've made it but also to make more gains in the future. That's that's the meaning of these last fifty years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. Because across the country right now there are well organized and well funded efforts. To undo these games. And one of those gains. Is under particular -- right now and that's what I wanna spend the rest of my time here talking about. Justice inequality feeds on injustice. Opportunity requires justice and justice requires the right to vote. Johnson. President Johnson right after he signed the civil rights -- law told his advisors. Some of whom worked on the wall are just wait you've got a big thing -- let the dust settled on store -- -- -- that are not I can't wait. We've got a press forward and pass the voting rights act. Johnson said about this there can be and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. Voting. Voting is a time when we all have an -- that. Black or white rich or poor man or woman. Doesn't matter. In the -- law. And in the eyes of our democracy. We're all supposed to have that equal right to cast our ballot. To help determine the direction of our society. The principle of one person one vote is the single greatest tool we have to redress. And unjust status quo. You would think there would not be an argument about this anymore. But the start simple truth is that's. The right to vote is threatened today. In a -- that it has not been since the voting rights act became law nearly five decades ago. Across the country. Republicans have led efforts. To pass laws making it harder. Not easier for people to vote. In some places. Women could be turned away from polls just because the registered under their maiden name but the driver license -- the mayor. Senior citizens who've been voting for decades. May suddenly be told I could no longer vote until they can come up with the right -- In other places spokesmen learned that without a document like a passport or birth certificate they can't register. About 60% of Americans don't have a passport. Just because you don't have the money to travel abroad. I mean you should be able to vote here at home. And just to be clear I know where my -- -- it is. But a lot of people. A lot of people don't. Others still about a -- them. You remember that. I was crazy. -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- Not totally clear I am not against reasonable attempts to secure the ballot we understand that. Trust -- rules in place. But I am against requiring. An idea that millions of Americans don't have. That -- only prevent you from exercising. Your right to vote. But the first words put to -- in our American story tell us that all of us are created equal and we understand that it took. A long time to make sure -- those words. Meant something but. But for two years ago. We put laws in place because of enormous struggles. The dedicate. That I do. To make our democracy. Truly mean some. And that makes it -- to pass laws that make it harder for any eligible citizen to vote especially because. Every citizen doesn't just have the right to vote they have a responsibility to vote. So yes we're right to be on guard against voter fraud. Voter fraud would impinge on our democracy is what we don't want folks boat that should be vote. We all agree on that let's stipulate to that because the lawyers there. But there's a reason why those who argue that harsh restrictions on voting. Are -- necessary. To fight voter fraud for having such a hard time proven any real widespread voter -- -- -- give you some statistics one recent study found only ten cases. Of alleged in person voter impersonation in twelve years. Ten cases. Another analysis found that out of a 197. Million votes cast for federal election between your -- 2000 but. Only forty voters. Out of -- 197. Million. -- -- -- -- Now. For those -- math majors. As a percentage that is zero point 0000. 2%. That's that's not a lot. So so let's be clear the real voter fraud is people who -- admire right by making bogus arguments about by the -- But to say there have been some. Some of these officials have been -- these laws have been more -- If that is going to be good little public -- I'm some of them have. Not been shy about saying that they're doing this for partisan reasons. It is wrong. President Johnson said deadly wrong. To deny any of your fellow American's right to vote in this country. It is wrong to change our election rules just because -- politics it is wrong to make citizens wait for 567 hours just to vote. It is wrong to make a senior citizens who no longer have the driver's license jump through hoops and. Have to pay money just exercise the rights she is cherished for a lifetime. America did not stand up and did not -- did not sacrifice to -- the right to vote for themselves and for others. Only to fit the nod to their kids and their grandchildren. We got a good sense into the. Some folks from Chicago know. -- -- One of the first -- I had out of law -- was to lead a voter registration for a in my home state of Illinois. We registered more -- -- hundred. 150000. Dollars. And as an organizer I got to help other citizens exercise their most cherished and fundamental rights that mattered to me. As president I'm not gonna let the tax. On these rights going challenge. We're not gonna let voters oppression going shall. So earlier this week you heard from the attorney general. And there is reason the agency runs -- called the Department of Justice. They've taken on more than a hundred. Voting rights cases since 2000 and not -- defended the rights of everybody from African Americans to Spanish speakers to soldiers serving overseas. Earlier this year a bipartisan commission I appointed. Chaired by that my election lawyer and Mitt Romney's election lawyer came up with a series of modern. Our common sense reforms to modernize -- registration. And to curb the potential for fraud in a Smart way. And ensure that no one has to wait for more than half an hour to cast about. States and local election board should take up those recommendations. And with the fiftieth anniversary of freedom summer almost upon us I urge members of congress to honor those who gave their lives. But others good exercise the right. An update the voting rights -- go ahead and get that done. -- because the right to vote is something cherished by every American. We should not be -- The argument about this there -- a lot of things we can argue about. But the -- to vote. Look -- political platform is that. I -- -- -- why why would you. Make better part of your agenda. Preventing people from voting. How can you defend that. There -- a whole bunch of folks out there who don't vote for me. Didn't -- Foreman don't like what I do. I -- that I would. Prevent them from voting and exercising. Their franchise. Makes no sense. Black or white man or woman urban rural rich -- Native American. -- -- Gay straight. Republican or Democrat voters want to vote should be able to vote. Period full stop. Voting is not a democratic issue it's not a Republican issue with the nation of citizens. What makes our our. Democracy strong. But it's -- fact this recent effort to restrict the boat. Has not been led by both -- There's been led by the Republican part. And in fairness it's not just Democrats were concerned you know you have one Republican state legislator -- up. I'm quoting here making it more difficult for people to vote is not a good sign for a party that wants to attract more people. Multiply that that's -- good ends like. I'll moderate I'm not a competitive -- -- -- combative democratic by that's -- supposed to work the competition of ideas. But I don't want -- Change in the rules. To try to restrict. People's access to the ballot. And I think responsible people regardless your party affiliation should agree that if your strategy depends on having fewer people show up to vote. That's not a sign of strength. At the sign of weakness. And not only is all it is is. It ultimately bad politics. I believe ultimately it -- it harms the entire country. If voting -- -- to the many we risk ending up stuck year after year with special interest policies. That benefit the fortunate few and injustice perpetuates -- -- while. But remember -- injustice perpetuated inequality injustice opens up opportune. And as infuriating as as efforts to roll back harder rights can be. The trajectory of our -- Has to -- muscle. The story of America the story of progress. No matter how often -- how intensely that progress has been challenged ultimately this nation has move ball. Doctor -- -- the arc of the moral universe is long. It bends towards justice. We move forward on civil rights that we can move forward on workers' rights and we move forward on women's rights and disability rights and gay rights. We showed that when ordinary citizens come together to participate in this democracy we -- justice will not be denied. So the single most important thing we can do to protect our right to vote. -- -- -- So. I'm -- I'm -- -- make one last point here. We're -- attorney general -- looks at all the laws that are being passed. We're gonna head. Civic organizations that are making sure that. State laws and local walls are doing what they're supposed to do. We will fight back whatever we see unfairly. The franchise big challenge. But the -- is bad for all involved that are being put points. The biggest problem we have is. People giving up their -- -- Voluntarily. Not participated. The number of people who voluntarily don't vote or eligible to vote dwarfs. What -- these laws -- put in place. Mike. Might do in terms of diminishing. The -- liberals. -- we can't treat these new barriers as an excuse not to participate. We can't use cynicism as an excuse not participate sometimes I hear people say well we haven't gotten everything we need. Don't -- -- we still have poverty we still have problems. Of course. If things don't happen overnight when I was down in Texas. Everybody is celebrating the -- that the civil rights law -- finally passed. Remember there -- decades. In which people sacrificed and worked -- Change doesn't happen overnight but it happens. As long as we don't purposely. Give our power went. Every obstacle put in -- pat. Should remind us of -- -- we hold in our hands each time we pull that lever or fill in that mobile or touched that screen. We just not the harness that power. We've got to create a national network committed taking action we we can call of the National Action Network. -- -- I wanted me there rebuilt Europe. Where does remain bitter. -- we'll have failed to get there right now -- -- -- the -- Don't let your daughter and son and daughter -- -- who lives. -- I know it's it's better -- The polls -- subject because it. Go to church did Romeo. -- -- -- -- -- I understand but you can you can do it without that if you if we have to. We're at a time when -- many anniversaries. At citizens -- made up an officer of 52 years and then. So to seeing. The progress we've made. Is to see my own life in the progression -- You think about -- sport education in the Civil Rights Act -- the voting rights act of freedom summer and with those anniversaries we have. New reason to remember. Those who made it possible for us to be. Like the three civil rights workers in Mississippi to white one black poor murdered fifty years ago -- they tried to help their fellow citizens register to. -- -- -- Andrew Goodman and Michael -- believes so strongly that kid would about double barrel on the lay down their lives for them if you can do -- take them out. On the -- that they're given you. -- -- You can't let that thing. You do have the power. I -- my last election. But I need you to make sure that the changes that we've started continue predicted the company you've -- both. -- -- -- President Obama speaking there at the National Action Network a group founded by Reverend Al Sharpton later -- the president. More now we're joined from Washington by BC news political director Rick Klein Rick. President dedicated a long line of its passage is one part of his speech there here in New York to voting rights how big of a priority is that the administration. It's interesting because he -- another issue around voter apathy been talked about how that is actually the biggest issue facing Democrats this year but. Voter access a ballot box access is a core issue for Democrats for the civil rights movement. It is something that Republicans continue to push and Democrats push back and feel good about I think it is safe territory as far as the president is concerned appearing at a group like this. You know your bases on board and he makes a pretty solid argument just on the merits about what a -- -- vote in the United States. Something he's been talking about all week of course today's speech a continuation of the conversation and civil rights and race in this country. That has included as you know Rick some controversy involving the nation's first African American attorney general Eric Holder let's take a listen this was on Tuesday when holder was on the hill. A renewed my request. Like -- who we promised it used to provide you and your staff with. Sir I've read you -- your department promised and it is inadequate. And I realize that contempt is not a big deal to our attorney general. But it is important that we have proper oversight but. -- You unity ticket. I don't want to go there are -- about the contempt. He should not assume. -- that is not a big deal to me. I think it was an appropriate that was unjust but never think that that was not a big deal to me don't ever think that. And yesterday holder suggested his exchange with the Texas -- Republican congressman there was part of a larger problem take a listen to this. I am pleased to note that the last five years have been defined by significant strides in by lasting reforms even in the face. Even in the face of unprecedented. Unwarranted. Ugly. And divisive adversity. If you don't believe that. At the weigh -- for you forget about me forget about me. You look at the -- attorney general the United States was -- yesterday. Buy a house committee had nothing to let me forget that what attorney general as ever had to deal with that country. Strong words there Rick from the attorney general dress in the same group the president just spoke to obviously this has been bubbling but quite unusual for this. Racial -- to surface -- what set it off. I think that hearing that we just saw piece of is what got attorney general holder going and interestingly the remarks that we -- just focusing on it at this event. That the attorney general spoke out in New York. That was not in the prepare attacks clearly just got him going personally. And it set him off and a lot of folks I think with some justification. Saw that as a as a pretty clear indication the attorney general feels like he's come in for rough treatment the president also for rough treatment because of their race. That gets people talking there's no question about it and that's suggestion at speaker Boehner and congressman -- who just saw little bit up. Firing back -- -- is not about that at all it's all about oversight and I was looking at this speech to see how the president responded to it he did have some kind words of the attorney general. Making a point that -- -- the department of justice and that it will pursue justice although he didn't go quite as far as his friend Eric Holder did a couple of days ago in suggesting that race has something to do with the Republican opposition. And certainly for President Obama who spoke yesterday -- LBJ library the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act all of this controversy sort of part of this message from the administration this week that the country -- so much unfinished business when it comes to civil rights -- race with -- us tonight. We want to open the gates to -- President Johnson said it. We're also gonna give all our people. Black and white. Help they need to walk through those gates. Some of the sounds familiar. It's because today we remain locked in the same great debate. So aside from the anniversary yesterday -- and -- all these events this week and obviously the convention appear in New York does seem to me like. Issues of race and civil rights at least stint in terms of talking points from the administration. Are taking on a -- more prominent role this term so far been been in the first term. It was interesting is it is not really tied to events on Capitol Hill -- votes in congress. There are always things going on out there around voting rights for this a lot of this is words a lot of his frustration a lot of it is just about the basic. Congressional -- White House give and take and that's what set off. Attorney general holder so I do think we're engaged in this conversation probably more deeply than we have been for some time during the Obama presidency I always thought that the promise and maybe the hope of the Obama presidency is that. You have that more honest conversation about race and there have been. Glimmers of that the route but. You look at the attorney general the United States feels like he is getting -- -- scrutiny from congress because he's black because the president's -- that's a conversation worth having and I think we've just begun to have that as a result of a holder's comments on Wednesday. And before we let you go just -- -- reflect for a moment on the fact that the president of the United States -- spoke at. The group that Al Sharpton founded the National Action Network host this event it has hosted this event every year since 1991. What do what does this mean for Al Sharpton somebody that we involve known and followed for some time and -- it was -- some sort of validation having the president -- there. No doubt -- particularly when there's other hot button issues out there to take the time to go to New York City to speak to pay homage to -- we know that he's close to the president. Close politically also important politically and that's one of the -- -- under covered stories around the mid term elections this year. Is that turnout we so important and black turnout in particular. President Obama referenced that earlier about the problem with people just not voting on exercising that right to vote. Across the country even in -- -- states and certainly in battleground states -- about. George I think about Texas. If the president is able to. Get African American voters to turn out the same kind of numbers they do -- a presidential year. Suddenly talking about in different kind of electorate in the mid term here that's a problem for Democrats are just purely on the politics addicted to separate out the policy -- you know the president's in -- -- a lot of the goals here. -- -- the politics is an important cohort for him to be appealing to an election year. And we know Rick your following the politics of between fourteen -- -- very closely be sure to check out our fourteen for fourteen project on abcnews.com profile in the fourteen. Biggest races of this election season ABC news political director -- extra -- for. Hey thanks art and have a great weekend in you can keep up with this story in real time by downloading the ABC news -- and -- the story for exclusive updates on the go for now. I'm -- and -- New York have a great week.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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