International

Obama calls for end to voter suppression

Former US President Barack Obama has sharply criticised what he described as Republican attempts at voter suppression in a speech at civil rights leader John Lewis’s funeral.

He said people in power were “attacking our voting rights with surgical precision” and called for wide reform.

He also decried the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent use of federal agents against protesters.

Lewis died of cancer earlier this month aged 80.

He was one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders, which included Martin Luther King Jr, and helped organise the historic 1963 March on Washington.

In a fiery eulogy delivered in Ebeneezer Baptist Church in the city of Atlanta, Mr Obama, a Democrat, launched a stinging attack on Republican President Donald Trump’s administration and some police departments.

“Today we witness with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans,” he said. “We can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”

He said people in government were “doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting” by closing polling stations and imposing “restrictive ID laws” on minorities and students.

Mr Obama singled out the role of the US postal service in delivering postal votes amid the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier on Thursday Mr Trump suggested the 2020 presidential election in November should be delayed because he said Рwithout providing evidence Рthat postal voting would enable large-scale voter fraud.

Mr Obama also proposed a series of reforms to voting in the US, including:

  • making sure Americans are automatically registered to vote
  • giving the vote to former prison inmates who had “earned their second chance”
  • creating new polling stations and expand early voting
  • making election day a national holiday so workers who can’t get time off can vote.

He also called for people in Washington DC and Puerto Rico to have the same representation as other Americans, a long-cherished ambition of Democrats.

Washington is a federal district and so does not have representatives in Congress, but only a delegate to the House of Representatives with limited powers. Puerto Rico is a US territory that does not have representation in Congress and Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections.

And he called for an end to the filibuster – which requires 60 votes to pass legislation instead of a simple majority of 51. He described it as a “Jim Crow relic”. Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in southern states until 1965 and were used to disenfranchise black people.

“If all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” he said.

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