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Ahead Of Midterm Elections, Obama Focuses On Voting Rights


While the situation in Ukraine is demanding the attention of President Obama's foreign policy team, the president himself has barely mentioned the problems abroad, focusing instead on domestic policy issues. His weekly radio address dealt with the question of women and equal pay. And on Friday he went to a forum organized by civil rights activist Al Sharpton, where he talked about voting rights. Joining us, as she does most Mondays, is Cokie Roberts. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Morning, Kelly. Welcome to Monday morning.

MCEVERS: Thank you. So what's happening here? You've talked about the president trying to get voters to turn out in 2014. We know it's tough in a non-presidential election year. Is that why he's focusing on these issues?

ROBERTS: Yes, basically. And even more so now that there is a survey out by a Democratic pollster showing that the key parts of the Obama coalition, young people, unmarried women, African-Americans and Hispanics, that only 64 percent of them say that they are likely to vote this year compared with 79 percent of everybody else.

So there's even more emphasis on trying to get that vote out. So the president's talked about immigration. Now there's going to be some attempt to change deportations that have greatly angered the Hispanic community. In the last couple of weeks we've heard a lot about women and equal pay to try to get out single women, and we've heard already a lot this year about gay marriage, trying to energize young people.

But this week, as the three former presidents joined President Obama at the Lyndon Johnson Library to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark civil rights act and what was dubbed a civil rights summit, the president also started talking to African-American audiences about voting rights.

MCEVERS: And the president had some pretty strong words on Friday when he spoke to Al Sharpton's National Action Network, accusing Republicans of making it harder, not easier for people to vote. What did he say?

ROBERTS: Well, he was greeted by cheering crowds on this, Kelly, and there has been some dissatisfaction among African-Americans. They say the president's not doing enough on the subject of race.

And he has always seemed torn, that he's not the African-American president but the president who is African-American. But there was no hesitancy here in denouncing the voter ID laws that have now been passed in the majority of states. He said, quote, "America did not stand up and did not march and did not sacrifice to gain the right to vote for themselves and others only to see it denied to their kids and their grandchildren."

So he was clearly rallying the faithful.

MCEVERS: It's not just about politics here, right? I mean there is some substance.

ROBERTS: Yes. There is, absolutely, substance on this question of voter ID laws, plus cutting off early voting, ending same-day registration. They are restricting voting, not expanding it. Now, the proponents say they're trying to reduce voter fraud, despite the fact that very few surveys show that there is voter fraud, and Democrats say that the states that are passing these laws, which are states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors, are trying to keep Democratic voters from having their ballots counted.

And they point to the things like the fact that in a couple of states a gun permit is a valid voter ID but a student identification card is not. Now, a long-time civil rights activist, Andy Young, has proposed, all right, then let's have all Social Security cards with photos on them and make those the voter ID. President Clinton signed onto that at the civil rights summit.

But that, Kelly, raises all kinds of questions about national ID cards, all kinds of things come up there. But I think the bottom line here is that to the degree that Democrats are able to characterize Republicans as trying to keep young people and minorities from voting, that it hurts Republicans with those groups where they're already having tremendous problems.

MCEVERS: Cokie Roberts joins us every Monday. Have a great week, Cokie.

ROBERTS: You too, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.